Here’s Another Pesticide “We Had Better Know Something About”—As A Controversial National GMO-Labeling Bill Plows Through Congress


In a recent Earth Island Journal piece Anna Lappe, food activist and writer, Anna Lappé, evoked the cautionary words of one of the environmental movement's most influential leaders:

In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote: “If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals … taking them into the very marrow of our bones—we had better know something about their nature and their power.” More than five decades later, we know more of their power, but we still have much to learn.”

Keep that in mind while you consider one of life’s great pleasures: if you’re lucky, you live in a part of the country where fresh sweet corn is just starting to be harvested. Savvy vendors, whether at the farmers market or the grocery, will accurately (we hope) advertise this type of corn as “GMO-free.”

And most of it is. What’s shocking is how much corn grown in the U.S. never sees the table: most is feed-grain corn, which covers over 80 million acres. This fabled commodity corn is not exactly what you want at your summer barbecue—mostly because it is inedible until it is processed, but also because it carries the controversial genetic modifications that make it resistant to herbicides.

While the first sweet corn harvests are making the news from California to New Jersey, GMO corn is making the news is much less celebratory way. Recent research connects more herbicides to cancer, and yet agribusinesses refute these claims and the GMO bill that they helped create is creeping its way through Congress.

The World Health Organization (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently determined 2,4-D, an herbicide (you may remember our campaign against this stuff last year) is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” This comes not too long after IARC gave the designation “probably carcinogenic to humans” to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp®. RoundUp, of course, is a heavily used product due to genetic engineering—plants are “designed” to resist the effects of the product, so it can be sprayed more liberally. Recent genetic engineering developments from Dow put corn on the market that exhibits the same feature for 2,4-D. Tom Philpott of Mother Jones gives a rather cynical assessment of these new designations for the chemicals:  

Even so, rather than filling their spray tanks solely with a "probable" carcinogen, corn and soybean farmers can now fill up with a mix of "possible" and "probable" carcinogens before spraying their fields. That may sound like a twisted form of progress, but it should be noted that there's evidence that toxic chemicals do worse things to us when combined than they do solo. That such "synergistic" effects are little studied is hardly comforting."

Agribusiness companies are feeling Philpott’s discomfort about about this designation, but for very different reasons. It does not bode well for business, and so these companies argue that their chemicals have already been proven safe. Bill Tomson of Politico’s Morning Ag gives a succinct synopsis of the reactions from Dow, the National Corn Growers Association, and Croplife America (the trade association representing agrichemical companies), all of which go something like this:

Next to the plate was the National Corn Growers Association, which said: "Government regulatory agencies charged with protection of public health in more than 100 countries have evaluated the science and concluded that 2,4-D does not increase health risks when used as directed. In fact, no government in the world considers it a carcinogen. That includes U.S. EPA, the European Food Safety Authority, Health Canada and all other world regulatory agencies."

Though the EPA’s pesticide approval process has received heaps of criticism, NCGA’s statement is, factually accurate.

Advocates of GMO labeling put the WHO designation in their quiver of reasons why we Americans should have the right to know whether or not GMOs are in our food. It is not an unconvincing logic that buying food with GMO corn could be contributing to higher rates of cancer amongst people who are around these types of pesticides. National standards for GMO labeling, however, may be one step closer to happening, but not in a way that these advocates would like.

Rep. Mike Pompeos’ Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act is making its way through the House, and Agri-Pulse recently reported that the assessment was largely positive. This is the bill that Environmental Working Group has dubbed the Deny American the Right to Know (DARK Act), because critics say that it will water down the labeling process and deny states the rights to label GMOs. Chase Purdy of Politico’s Morning Ag reports that Pompeo is confident that the bill will get through the house by the August recess.

Image via Flickr


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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