New Internationalist

America fights to save its cornfields

US environmentalists are up in arms. They have reason to be terrified. Bio-tech giants Monsanto and Dow have merged. The partners are poised to launch a new herbicide on an unsuspecting American public.

They plan to poison the American heartland, those famous cornfields, with the herbicide 2,4-D, one half of the infamous defoliant, Agent Orange, used to decimate jungles during the Vietnam War.

Many EU countries and some Canadian provinces have prohibited the use of 2,4-D as it is a suspected carcinogen which has been shown to double the incidence of birth defects in the children of pesticide applicators in a study conducted by University of Minnesota pathologist Vincent Garry.

American farmers face a chicken and egg problem. Most weeds have grown resistant to the current herbicides, the most used being Roundup. So Dow Agrosciences has produced a new genetically modified strain of corn which can tolerate 2,4-D, allowing it to kill off the Roundup-resistant weeds yet leavethe corn unharmed. Predictably, farmers who switch to the new regime will have to double-dose their fields with a deadly cocktail of Monsanto’s Roundup plus 2,4-D.

Environmentalists and farmers who have watched the effects of deadly pesticides and herbicides are alarmed by the prospect of side effects. Researchers warn that though the threats are still not fully established, it may be a risk factor for conditions like Hodgkin’s lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and certain leukemias, which were found in Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that the chemical could have ‘endocrine disruption potential’ and interfere with the human hormonal system. It may prove toxic to honeybees, birds and fish, according to research conducted by the US Forest Service and others. In 2004, a coalition of groups spearheaded by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pesticide Action Network, wrote a letter to the EPA taking it to task for underestimating the health and environmental impacts of 2,4-D.

In India, there’s been a long uphill battle to fight pesticides and herbicides. Studies have shown that DDT has been found in mothers’ milk in pesticide-ridden Punjab. Environmentalists are fighting Monsanto’s BT cotton and other genetically modified produce all over India.

People in the majority world don’t often see that US activists fight the same battles as we do. Twenty years ago, I was a spectator to an awesome dispute. Ralph Nader’s Congresswatch was trying to get US Congress members to stop GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) taking away hard-won environmental gains regarding pesticides in the US. In the Geneva round of talks, US activists found that foreign multinational corporation lobbyists had easier access to their politicians. It was an uphill task.

Currently millions of honey bees have been poisoned by pesticides in the US. Millions more have been brought in from Australia. Though environmentalist groups try to create awareness about the danger to the earth, to the food chain and to humans, they are often dismissed as simply being alarmist.

Farmers are beginning to protest. They watch helplessly as earthworms and vital micro-organisms are killed off by pesticides and herbicides, decreasing the soil fertility. The groundwater is polluted, poisoning farm animals fed with the chemical-infused grain.

American corn is a staple which could affect the entire food chain from corn-fed beef to breakfast cereals, to high-fructose corn syrup, a key element in many processed foods.

Our great grandparents in the US, India and all over the world used integrated farming methods that were organic and healthy. Many farmers are coming back to this realization. But it needs serious intervention at policy level to stop multinational corporations poisoning our food chain.

America’s agriculture department, the USDA, is considering deregulating Monsanto’s new genetically modified corn variety (the one which will be used in conjunction with 2,4-D) and is accepting final public comments on the matter until 27 February. US environmentalists will welcome letters of protest to help save their country. We all need to show our solidarity to prevent our earth being polluted.

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