The Latest GMO Corn Strain Can Withstand a Chemical Weapon

Dow’s new seeds are bred to withstand applications of 2,4-D, a component in Agent Orange.

(Photo: Walter Zerla/Getty Images)

Sep 18, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Agent Orange is back. Sort of.

A byword for the horrors of the Vietnam War, the chemical that did untold damage to people on both sides of the conflict is an herbicide—a particularly voracious one. Sprayed over jungle and farmland alike, the chemical stripped away cover and killed off food supplies.

More than 40 years later, Dow AgroScience received approval for the commercial use of a new strain of genetically engineered corn that’s designed to withstand one of the key components in Agent Orange, the chemical 2,4-D. The strain was developed in response to the rise of superweeds—plants such as palmer amaranth that have naturally developed resistance to the herbicide glyphosate, which previous generations of GMO corn were bred to withstand, the idea being that the weeds die and the crops survive.

Genetically engineered corn has dominated the American market for decades, and despite the fears of many consumers, no reputable study has linked the consumption of GMOs with any health risk to humans. The same can’t be said for 2,4-D. The herbicide has been linked to development problems in children, reproductive issues, birth defects, and various forms of cancer. While it can’t be held solely responsible for the ill wrought by Agent Orange in Vietnam, the symbolism of spraying American fields with one component of a horrendous weapon is difficult to move past.

According to USDA estimates, the new corn strain will result in a 200 to 600 percent rise in the use of the herbicide by 2050. Now, 46 million pounds are used in the United States annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“With this approval comes millions of more pounds of toxic herbicides dumped onto our land; it’s an unacceptable outcome,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, in a statement.

According to The New York Times, more than 240,000 people signed petitions submitted to the EPA calling on the agency to block approval for the new strain.