U.S. wheat farm
Prices for wheat and other major global crops have been rising, though may believe a number of factors would change their trajectory. Reuters

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture readies its decision on whether to approve for widespread use Dow Chemical Co.'s (NYSE: DOW) new genetically engineered corn, the chemical company is touting a broad coalition of support among farmers to increase the likelihood that the agency approves the product.

Dow is taking this step to counter claims that the new corn, called Enlist, could encourage the use of a powerful herbicide found in the Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange, because Enlist is designed to be resistant to this chemical. Enlist's opponents say that if this herbicide is more widely employed, the environment and public health would be endangered. More than 140 agricultural, consumer, environmental and public-health groups sent USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack a letter, which was signed by 365,000 people last month urging him to reject the crop.

In response to an article we ran in late April about this campaign, Dow dismissed as hyperbole criticism surrounding Enlist. The company said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined 2, 4-D (the Agent Orange herbicide) poses a reasonable certainty of no harm, and that, in fact, a different chemical, 2,4,5-T, is the principal contaminant in Agent Orange.

The surest way to increase per acre herbicide volume is to do nothing to solve the weed resistance problem, Dow wrote. Returning to agriculture as it was 20 years ago ... will merely force farmers into additional cultivation connected with increasing erosion, agricultural runoff, soil compaction and fuel use with attendant contributions to air pollution.

To bolster its position, Dow sent us a list of mainstream agricultural organizations that the company said concur with its assessment. In a letter sent to the USDA, these groups insisted that further evaluations of 2, 4-D would disrupt the agricultural industry and deny valuable tools to U.S. farmers by requiring costly and unwarranted environmental reviews.

While Dow has publicized this letter as a means of demonstrating the support for its new corn by industry heavyweights, an analysis of the organizations reveals that they are either backed by or led by key players in the genetically modified organism (GMO) industry. In other words, rather than being a group of unbiased representatives of agricultural interests, these groups stand to benefit from Enlist's successful introduction to the market.

Monsanto Connection

Six of the nine groups on Dow's list have clear connections to Monsanto Co. (NYSE: MON), one of the world's leading producers of GMO seeds and herbicides. The company helped launch the GMO wave more than a decade ago with the release of genetically engineered Roundup Ready seeds manufactured to resist Monsanto's own Roundup herbicide. Among Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops are soybeans, alfalfa, corn, cotton, spring canola, sugar beets and winter canola.

Roundup Ready crops account for 90 percent of the soybeans and about 70 percent of corn and cotton produced in the U.S., according to the USDA. Like Dow, the company is also seeking regulatory approval for crops resistant to multiple herbicides, as its glyphosate-based Roundup continues to lose its potency in the face of so-called superweeds.

These are the links between the agricultural groups supporting Enlist and Monsanto:

  • The Agricultural Retailers Association -- a Monsanto representative is a member of the board of directors for crop and seed production
  • American Seed Trade Association -- its non-profit First the Seed Foundation, which promotes seed biotechnology, is funded by the American Seed Trade, which itself is backed financially by Monsanto
  • American Sugarbeet Growers Association -- Monsanto is a financial sponsor
  • Biotechnology Industry Association -- Monsanto officials serve on the executive committee and as vice chair of the food and agriculture governing board
  • National Wheat Growers Association -- Monsanto is a diamond level sponsor
  • National Corn Growers Association -- the group's chairman, Bart W. Schott, is a liaison to the Monsanto Grower Advisory Committee

In addition, a Dow AgroSciences representative serves on governing bodies of the Biotechnology Industry Association. Dow is a bronze level backer of the National Wheat Growers Association.

The three other signatories to the USDA letter -- the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association and the National Cotton Council -- do not appear to have any professional ties to either Monsanto or Dow.

However, all of those organizations specifically describe biotechnology as the future of modern agriculture on their websites. Plus, most soybean and cotton crops come from Roundup Ready seeds. Hence, trade groups created around these plants are invested in the creation of new, multi-herbicide resistant seeds that can withstand herbicides such as 2, 4-D.

The Problem of 2, 4-D and Herbicide Resistance

Aside from the potentially problematic connection of 2, 4-D to Agent Orange, disputed by Dow, the chemical may pose its own risks. For example, the herbicide has been known to drift when sprayed, damaging and even destroying neighboring crops that are not genetically engineered to resist it. Dow claims a new 2, 4-D herbicide that it has developed alongside Enlist corn reduces drift by at least 90 percent.

In addition to corn, Dow is also developing soybeans and cotton with 2, 4-D resistance. Critics warn that this is only a temporary fix to the rapidly increasing problem of herbicide resistance, insisting the introduction of new and potentially toxic herbicides will deepen a vicious cycle akin to a chemical arms race with weeds.

Dow's 2, 4-D crops are no 'solution' to glyphosate-resistant weeds. After at best temporary relief, they will trigger an outbreak of still more intractable weeds resistant to both glyphosate and 2, 4-D, wrote the coalition of critics in their letter to the USDA.

What's Next?

Dow hopes the USDA will approve Enlist soon and that the product will be available to farmers by 2013.

For its part, Dow insists that impeding the sale and use of its new Enlist products could have drastic impacts for both the American agricultural industry and the international community.

The recommendations that pesticide opponents are making today would make farming less efficient at a time when global crop production is barely keeping pace with food demand driven by a word population expansion, Dow wrote in a statement. It would also further impair U.S. farm productivity in a difficult economy at a time when agricultural exports are one of the single greatest contributors to our nation's balance of trade.