On Wednesday, in a quiet but profound decision to approve a dangerous weed killer, the EPA chose the rights of Dow Chemical Co. and the biotech lobby over those of the American people, particularly our children. While the decision will now be litigated, our real hope as citizens to protect ourselves from such potentially carcinogenic herbicides is to get our government to approve mandatory federal labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.
Explaining the connection requires that I get down into the, um, weeds.
The EPA approved the herbicide Enlist Duo to kill weeds in corn and soybean fields. In the months leading up to the decision, more than 500,000 citizens, 50 congress-people and dozens of eminent physicians, weed scientists and public health experts had urged the EPA not to approve Enlist.
Enlist Duo is the combination of two different chemicals, glyphosate and the even more toxic 2,4-D, created by Dow AgroSciences to be used in tandem with their genetically engineered Enlist Duo seeds, which have been genetically engineered to resist this herbicide. The addition of 2,4-D to this mixture is cause for alarm as exposure to this chemical has been scientifically linked to some serious diseases including Parkinson's and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
When the EPA analyzed the risks of Enlist Duo, they failed to apply an additional 10X safety factor as mandated under the federal Food Quality Protection Act, whenever children are shown to be more at risk than adults. Children are especially vulnerable to the health risks associated with 2,4-D because they absorb more of the pesticide relative to body weight than do adults. Dr. Phillip Landrigan, Dean for Global Health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine has said that "exposures to herbicides in early life can lead to disease in childhood or disease later on in adult life or even old age. Herbicide chemicals can also cross from mother to child during pregnancy and prenatal exposures that occur during the nine months of pregnancy are especially dangerous."
Dow denies that Enlist Duo will affect children, saying it will drift only 200 feet from fields. But, the Environmental Working Group has identified nearly 500 US elementary schools within 200 feet of a corn or soybean field that could soon be sprayed with this toxic pesticide cocktail. This means that thousands of children could soon be breathing, drinking and ingesting a likely carcinogen. And in case Dow is wrong and Enlist drifts 1,000 feet, as other formulations are know to do, the number of schools jumps to nearly 5,000, and tens of thousands of school children in the drift zones.
Dow's application to sell 2,4-D was the most important decision EPA faced since the mid-1990's approval of glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, for use on the first generation of GE crops. In the decades since, over a half BILLION pounds of glyphosate have been applied compared to what it likely would have been used in the absence of GE crops. The U.S. Geological Survey has found glyphosate is now a common component of 60-100% of rainwater samples in the Midwest during spring and summer, with levels rising in many aquatic ecosystems. We are now drinking and breathing this herbicide.
At the time of its approval, glyphosate was thought to be a less dangerous compound than the alternatives - including 2,4-D. However, we have never tested its use at these heightened levels. And a published peer-reviewed April 2014 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that glyphosate is clearly linked to B-Cell Lymphoma, and there are suspected links to other reproductive and developmental disorders due to its overuse and consequent over-exposure to humans.
Why would farmers need Enlist Duo when they can use Roundup? Enlist Duo was created because the overuse of Roundup on GE crops has led to the development of Roundup-resistant "superweeds" that are now challenging farmers on millions of acres across the US. But instead of promoting sustainable weed control methods like crop rotation and cover crops, government agencies have chosen to sanction a chemical treadmill in which more dangerous chemicals lead to more resistance and even more dangerous pesticides being used.
This decision doesn't just disappoint. It is truly frightening for it vividly demonstrates the powerful grip that a handful of major chemical/biotech companies hold over our regulatory process.
It also shines a glaring spotlight on why we now absolutely need mandatory federal labeling of genetically engineered foods. Despite the promises of Dow, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF and others, genetically engineered foods as currently used have led to the increased use of hundreds of millions of pounds of dangerous chemicals. These same companies have poured their ample profits from their patented genetically engineered seeds and pesticides into lobbying and intimidating our regulators, Congress and the White House to clear the on-ramp for their profitable new products.
In the brave new world of mega-lobbying by these chemical/biotech firms, consumers need the right to voice our preferences for how our foods are grown. And the only way we can choose whether or not to support this chemical treadmill is by having GE ingredients on food labels.
It is now in our hands to act if we are to protect our families and children. There are five things everyone can do.
- Look for Non-GMO Project Verified and USDA Certified Organic foods.
- Add your name to the 1.4 million citizens who have signed the FDA petition demanding GE labeling at JustLabelIt.org.
- Tell your members of Congress to support mandatory GE labeling.
- If you live in Colorado or Oregon, help GET OUT THE VOTE for those states' labeling referenda. While ultimately we do need a Federal solution, as with same sex marriage and the womens right to vote, this is one of those cases where the states may need to push the federal government to act.
- Drop an email or note to the leading food companies who are fighting against your right to know, as well as to your supermarket telling them that you want GE labels so you can choose whether or not you are supporting the GE food and chemical treadmill. These companies (you can find their names here) will listen, because they need your dollar.
This is more than a fight to choose how our foods are grown. It is a fight for whether our government is of, for and by the people or of, for and by a handful of chemical companies.
Gary Hirshberg is the Chairman/Co-Founder of Stonyfield Farm and Chairman of the Just Label It campaign for mandatory national labeling of genetically engineered foods and ingredients.