USDA on February 24, 2014 announced it is extending the public comment period until March 11 on whether to allow the sale of corn and soybean seeds that are part of a new weed control system from Dow AgroSciences. The new seeds are genetically engineered to resist both glyphosate herbicide and 2,4-D. Officials of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service say the extension is provided in response to stakeholder requests for additional time to gather public input.
In early January USDA released its draft of the Environmental Impact Statement. USDA said it was leaning toward allowing commercial sales of one type of corn and two types of soybean seeds in this system--which Dow calls its Enlist Weed Control System. USDA said in its Environmental Impact Statement that its "preferred alternative" was to deregulate the Enlist trait seed. USDA also said it considered four options in its review: no deregulation, approving only the corn seed, deregulating the soybean seed or granting approval for both of the seeds.
Comment period for Enlist extended until March 11
USDA held a 45 day public comment period for Enlist which was originally scheduled to end February 24, but then extended the period until March 11.
Farmers who are having problems with weeds resistant to the widely used herbicide glyphosate are eager to see the Enlist system get federal approval for commercial use. "We are still optimistic that corn and soybean growers will see Enlist technology approved and commercially available for the 2015 season," says Damon Palmer, the U.S. commercial leader of the Enlist Weed Control System for Dow AgroSciences. He's in charge of bringing the product to market, which includes getting all necessary government approvals.
Dow first submitted its 2,4-D trait technology to USDA in 2009. USDA announced in May 2013 it would conduct the Environmental Impact Study, which totals 204 pages.
Monsanto also has a new system awaiting approval
Monsanto has a new dicamba resistant trait technology named the Roundup Ready Xtend Crop System. It also has to undergo the scrutiny of an Environmental Impact Statement before it is approved by the government for commercial use. Michelle Vigna, Roundup Ready Xtend launch manager for Monsanto, sees the progress of the draft Environmental Impact Statement for Dow's Enlist product as reason to be optimistic about prospects for Monsanto's new product also getting cleared for marketing in 2015. Monsanto is looking forward to progress with regard to USDA's review of dicamba-tolerant soybeans in coming months.
The regulatory processes remain on track for 2015 introduction of Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans and Bollgard XtendFlex cotton, Vigna says. A dicamba-based corn herbicide is also moving through Monsanto's research and development pipeline but is several years behind the soybean and cotton traits.
USDA approval is only one step in the process
Keep in mind that USDA deregulation of a product is only one step in this process of trying to gain approval. Monsanto and Dow must also pursue federal EPA approvals for use of the herbicide products, as well as federal and state registrations. And, import approvals by countries that buy soybeans and corn that have these traits are also critical steps for products to be commercialized.
Monsanto's Roundup Ready Xtend Crop System for soybeans will contain the Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield trait technology stacked with a trait that contains tolerance to dicamba. Once approved, it will be the industry's first biotech product with tolerance to both glyphosate and dicamba herbicides.
Dow's Enlist system builds on glyphosate technology by containing glyphosate and a new 2,4-D choline. The herbicide – Enlist Duo with Colex-D Technology – offers low volatility, reduced drift, decreased odor and improved handling, says Dow.
Many welcome the new options, others have concerns
Several dozen Iowans and organizations have submitted public comments regarding Dow's proposed Enlist system.
Some people cite concerns about using 2,4-D which was a component of "Agent Orange," a chemical mixture sprayed on brush and jungle foliage by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. However, the health problems involving soldiers and civilians in Vietnam were investigated by the U.S. military and medical researchers and those studies eventually blamed another component in Agent Orange—and it was not 2,4-D. Even so, there are still people submitting comments now to USDA telling the government that exposure to 2,4-D could lead to cancer, reproductive problems and other human health challenges.
Some people worry that crop injury will result on non-target fields because 2,4-D is prone to drift. They're concerned about possible drift onto nearby fields or gardens that have crops that don't contain the Enlist trait for 2,4-D resistance. However, the Enlist herbicide has the new Colex-D technology, a formulation of 2,4-D featuring low volatility and reduced drift characteristics. Also, Dow AgroSciences has developed an education program to make sure farmers who use the Enlist system follow recommendations and apply the herbicide in a way that reduces risk of drift.
Farmers say new tools are needed to control weeds
Ag groups in Iowa have told USDA the new products will give farmers more tools to fight weed resistance, so U.S. farmers can remain competitive with other producers around the world. In encouraging USDA to approve the new biotech corn and soybean seed, the ag groups and many individual farmers highlight two key reasons—the reduction in total amount of chemicals applied that has resulted from increased biotech crop use so far; and the increase in herbicide resistant weed populations that are threatening yields of glyphosate resistant corn and soybeans now on the market.
"American farmers can no longer afford delays in the regulatory process," Craig Hill, Iowa Farm Bureau president, told USDA in his written comments. "These technologies must be made available for the next growing season."
Public comments express arguments for and against
Opponents of these new seeds fear the technology will lead to overuse of chemicals. They fear the same weed resistance problems will develop that have plagued other herbicide resistant corn and soybean seed technology—citing glyphosate and other herbicides as examples, along with Bt corn rootworm traits.
So the arguments go back and forth. State Representative John Landon, R-Ankeny, also a farmer, says farmers need the help that these new biotech traits offer. "Weed resistance to glyphosate and other popular herbicides presents a very real challenge to farmers. This is an issue that greatly affects my farming business and America's agricultural economy."
Unless these new biotech seeds are approved, Dow AgroSciences can only continue to test them in controlled trials on selected farms, trials that are closely watched by the Environmental Protection Agency. After the current USDA public comment period ends March 11, USDA can make a recommendation on whether the government should approve or not approve commercial use of the Enlist products. But USDA doesn't have the final say. EPA is conducting its own review on the expanded use of the herbicides.