THE U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal & Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) said it will move forward with the process to deregulate a set of genetically modified (GM) corn and soybean plants resistant to specific herbicides, including one known as 2,4-D.
The agency published the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) in the Jan. 10 Federal Register for public comment, setting up a 45-day comment period for the technology. Regulatory approvals are pending for Dow AgroScience's corn and soybeans that feature its new Enlist herbicide solution and crops containing Enlist herbicide tolerance traits.
The issue of glyphosate resistance has forced seed companies to look to new products to help keep so-called superweeds at bay.
Dow noted that new data from November 2013 indicate that an astonishing 86% of corn, soybean and cotton growers in the South have herbicide-resistant or hard-to-control weeds on their farms. The number of farmers affected by tough weeds in the Midwest has climbed as well and now tops 61%. Dow contends that growers need new tools now to address this challenge.
Although Dow hopes its latest line of Enlist products will do exactly that, consumer groups continue to express concerns about the products.
The Center for Food Safety (CFS) reported that USDA's EIS of 2,4-D resistant corn and soybeans comes despite "intense opposition from over 365,000 individuals, 48 medical and health professionals and 144 farm, fishery, public health, consumer and environmental groups and private businesses who have registered objections with USDA."
CFS executive director Andrew Kimbrell warned that USDA's stamp of approval for the chemical would "launch American agriculture into a new era of vastly increased dependence on more toxic pesticides."
CFS reported that Pennsylvania State University scientists have estimated that Enlist crops would increase agricultural use of 2,4-D to more than 100 million lb. per year — four times current levels.
Steps in process
Once APHIS receives a petition for regulatory review of certain GM plants, as it has from Dow, it conducts two required analyses before it makes its regulatory determination on whether or not the newly developed GM plants should be deregulated.
First, under the Plant Protection Act (PPA), APHIS determines if the GM plants pose a "plant pest risk" to agricultural crops or other plants or plant products.
PPA defines "plant pest" as organisms such as insects, bacteria or fungi that can injure or damage plants or plant products. If the proposed GM plants do not pose a plant pest risk, APHIS must then move forward with the deregulation of those GM plant varieties.
APHIS's preliminary plant pest assessment of these three new GM plants found that they do not pose such a plant pest risk.
However, before making its final regulatory decision, APHIS must also evaluate the potential impacts to the environment that may result from its regulatory decision, pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act. That review can take the form of an environmental assessment or, in this case, a more rigorous EIS.
The draft EIS considers four alternatives: (1) keep all of the GM corn and soybean plants under PPA regulation, (2) deregulate the GM corn plant only, (3) deregulate the two GM soybean plants only or (4) deregulate both the GM corn and soybean plants. In its announcement, USDA said the option to deregulate all three GM plants is APHIS's preferred alternative.
The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting risk assessments to decide on the approval of the proposed new uses of 2,4-D herbicide. This analysis includes a thorough review of any potential human health and environmental risks associated with the application of 2,4-D to the GM corn and soybean plants, such as additional use of the herbicide and potential off-site movement of 2,4-D to other crops or areas.
In the coming months, EPA will make its proposed regulatory decision available for public review and comment. After consideration of public comments, EPA will then make its final regulatory decision in coordination with APHIS's final regulatory decision regarding these plants.
"We look forward to USDA finalizing its review and deregulation of the technology so that American farmers can access Enlist corn and soybeans in 2015," Dow said in a statement.
National Corn Growers Assn. trade policy and biotechnology action team chair Jim Zimmerman added, "It is important that farmers have access to the proven, innovative technologies that continually allow them to improve American agriculture."