Most who know about the genetically modified food debate are familiar with the words Roundup Ready, a brand name of crops resistant to certain herbicides licensed by Monsanto. Soon, a new word will be on the tongues of farmers, scientists, and food industry experts: dicamba. By 2014, Monsanto’s Dicamba Soybean should have approval by the USDA for widespread use, and following that, Monsanto plans to introduce a varieties of cotton and corn using the same technology.
Dicamba is an herbicide used to control over 95 types of weeds. Monsanto created genetically modified Dicamba Soybeans to be resistant to this herbicide, ensuring their healthy growth without interference from other plants.
Dicamba-resistant crops represent the next generation of agriculture to grow in the breadbasket of the world. Where Roundup Ready, or glyphosate tolerant, crops used to be enough to manage weeds in fields, the chemical now has a weaker impact as weeds have adapted to resist the herbicide.
“Glyphosate is as important to world agriculture as penicillin is to human health,” said Dr. Stephen Powles, in a 2007 issue of Science. The article called this relationship “the love affair between farmers and glyphosate.” But in the same way that bacteria are now becoming resistant to antibiotics and creating superbugs, weeds have evolved to become resistant to glyphosate, and so newer, more powerful chemicals like dicamba are now necessary. Not only are they more powerful, but farmers also must stack several pesticides and herbicides in a system of multiple applications at different times for their crops to thrive.
Dicamba has been on the market for decades, but Monsanto is just now obtaining the licenses to sell Dicamba-resistant seeds. It could signal the switch between Roundup/glyphosate crops and crops adapted for dicamba and other herbicides like 2, 4-D.
One concern with dicamba is that it easily moves off-site from its intended crop, effectively killing any plant upon which it lands. Windy conditions and poor application techniques exacerbate this condition. Chemical companies are in the process of developing different formulas to combat this problem.
Is this new development in agriculture warranted? Is it safe?
Unfortunately, the answer to those questions may be different. The comments posted under the official petition submitted to the Department of Agriculture show somewhat the division between public health concerns and the agriculture industry.
Maria Concilio’s comment that “Not needed, not wanted, toxic herbicides in conjunction with genetic modification of our seed crops is abhorrent and unnecessary,” is not entirely true. Toxic chemicals may not be wanted, but are they needed in order for American crops to survive? Has the agriculture industry in essence created a monster, and now a bigger monster, that they need to fight the original one?
“I am a small farmer in north central Kansas (850 acres). It is extremely important to my operation’s survival that we continue to support advanced technology which will allow me to remain competitive with other countries. Undue delay and red tape in the approval process only gives my competitors an advantage which it may not be possible to overcome,” wrote Paul Wilson.
Another comment that “The addition of Dicamba to the box of tools is also necessary to keep control of weeds as they evolve and become resistant to older technologies. Without these technologies we will begin to see a decline in the amount of food the world can supply,” by Ryan Kysar, a farmer in South Dakota.
But a video posted on FixFood.org begs to differ, with a succinct remark by Troy Roush, an Indiana farmer: “I’m not against technology. I am against the unregulated release of this technology. We need to slow down, assess all the risks associated with this stuff, and make informed, rational choices and decisions.”
Opponents are encouraged to contact USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack or sign a petition against the approval, like one posted on the Pesticide Action Network. Monsanto’s Dicamba-Tolerant Genetically Engineered Soybean is expected to be approved by the USDA in 2014 and in use by 2015.
by Sarah Shultz, for Diets in Review