On the sleepy Friday after Independence Day, the USDA quietly signaled its intention to greenlight a new genetically engineered soybean seed from Dow AgroSciences. The product is designed to produce soy plants that withstand 2,4-D, a highly toxic herbicide (and, famously, the less toxic component in the notorious Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange).
If the two products are deregulated, Dow will enjoy a massive profit opportunity. Every year, about half of all US farmland is planted in corn and soy. Currently, Dow’s rival Monsanto has a tight grip on weed management in corn-and-soy country. Upwards of 90 percent of soy and 70 percent of corn is engineered to withstand another herbicide called glyphosate through highly profitable Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seed lines. And after so many years of lashing so much land with the same herbicide, glyphosate-resistant superweeds are now vexing farmers and “alarming” weed-control experts throughout the midwest.
And that’s where Dow’s 2,4-D-ready corn and soy seeds come in. Dow’s novel products will be engineered to withstand glyphosate and 2,4-D, so farmers can douse their fields with both herbicides; the 2,4-D will kill the weeds that glyphosate no longer can. That’s the marketing pitch, anyway.
The USDA, for its part, is buying what Dow is selling. In May, the agency released its Draft Environmental Assessment for the product, declaring that its “preferred alternative” was to deregulate it. And on July 13, USDA put out its “Plant Pest Risk Assessment” for it. This is a key document in the regulatory process for GMOs. Under the industry-friendly framework for GMO oversight cobbled together in the early ‘90s by then-Vice President Dan Quayle, the USDA can only regulate genetically modified organisms if they literally pose a risk to other plants as defined by the Federal Plant Pest Act. This is a very high bar; and as happens with nearly all GMO applications, the USDA’s assessment of Dow’s novel soy concluded that it’s “highly unlikely to pose a plant pest risk.”