A new biotech corn developed by Dow AgroSciences could answer the prayers of U.S. farmers plagued by a fierce epidemic of super-weeds. Or it could trigger a flood of dangerous chemicals that may make weeds even more resistant and damage other important U.S. crops.
Or, it could do both.
"Enlist," entering the final stages of regulatory approval, has become the latest flashpoint in the debate about the risks and rewards about farm technology. With a deadline to submit public comments on Dow's proposal at the end of this week, more than 5,000 individuals and groups have already weighed in. Dow Agrosciences, a unit of Dow Chemical Co, hopes to have the product approved this year and released by the 2013 crop.
The corn itself is not the issue -- rather it is the potent herbicide chemical component 2,4-D that is the center of debate.
The new corn is engineered to withstand liberal dousings of a Dow-developed herbicide containing the compound, commonly used in lawn treatments of broadleaf weeds and for clearing fields of weeds before crops like wheat and barley are planted.
Enlist is the first in a planned series of new herbicide-tolerant crops aimed at addressing a resurgence of crop-choking weeds that have developed resistance to rival Monsanto's popular Roundup herbicide. It is part of an expanding agricultural arsenal advocates say is key to growing enough food to feed a growing global population.
But while 2,4-D has a long history of effective use, the chemical's volatile nature also worries environmentalists because winds, high temperatures, humidity can cause traditional forms of the herbicide to migrate from farm fields where it is sprayed to wreak havoc on far-off crops, gardens, and trees that are unprotected from the invisible agent.
Environmentalists are pushing the government to pause before opening the door to what they say could be a destructive turn.
Opponents include some specialty crop farmers who fear 2,4-D herbicide use could cause widespread damage to crops that are not engineered with a tolerance to it. It is so potent that its use is tightly restricted in some areas and at certain times of the year in some U.S. states.
"It is a major issue for farm country," said John Bode, a lawyer for a coalition of farmers and food companies seeking regulatory restrictions or rejection of Dow's plans.
"Massive amounts of 2,4-D... can cause major changes, threatening specialty crops miles away," said Bode, an assistant Secretary of Agriculture in the Reagan administration.