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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  1. #1 Jo 24 Feb 12

    I went to the site to write my comment, and I got this message: ’The document you requested does not exist on The Web address may be incorrect, or the document may have been withdrawn.’ It's only Feb 24th.

  2. #2 Nick Harvey 24 Feb 12

    I clicked on the link and submitted a comment without any problems, so it is still accepting comments.

  3. #3 Yoshiko 24 Feb 12

    Hello, from Japan.
    Please support us! STOP TPPA and defend the rights of ordinay ppl, NOT bankers & corporate America.

    Japanese government ignored over 10,000,000 signs against TPPA, and announced Japan's interest in joining TPPA, which is not the interest of Japanese people.
    This petition on White House is an official one and if we can get 25,000 signs by 2nd March, the White House will officially respond to our petition.
    You can sign this petition from anywhere in the world.
    All you need is your name and any active e-mail to create an account on White House homepage.
    There is a space to fill in the zip code, but it is not required, so you can just leave it blank.
    Recently, Monsanto Japan has applied for a Bt cotton sheed to grow in Tohoku area where devastated by the 311 great earth quake last year.
    We don't need GMO in Japan nor in the world!
    Once TPPA is in power, we can not stop GMO here.
    Japanese agribusiness workers are not young people, so they are not very good at English and IT, so it is difficult for them to sign on the website.
    We need your help. Please please stop TPPA!!! Help us!
    Thank you in advance.

  4. #4 Mark 25 Feb 12

    Agent orange was a mixture of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. Many of the health problems are likely to be associated with the dioxin (TCDD) which is formed during the production of the 2,4,5-T. So it is not reasonable to assume that 2,4-D is the same as 2,4,5-T.

    While some pesticides are super nasty, I would like to point out that a ban on all pesticides becuase some are horrible would cause great harm to the human race. Such a blanket ban would make as much sense as locking up all humans just becuase the occasional murderer happens to be a human.

    Some of the best pesticides (for insects) are the artificial version of the pyrethrums (which are extracted from flowers grown in Africa). It is also noteworthy that one of the most nasty is nicotine which has been suggested on the web as a ’green’ insecticide.

  5. #5 Siddharth 27 Feb 12

    Hi, thanks for bringing this to the public's attention. It's ridiculous, that in this day of enlightened awareness and easy communication, that stuff like this still happens. Do let us know if there's any online petition (apart from the comments on the USDA site) that we could sign on.

  6. #6 senthil 25 Mar 12

    Good article.. the same is slowly happening in india.. monsanto is doing everything illegally and secretly within agricultural university campus..

  7. #7 Raluca 27 Jul 12

    There are many chemicals which have been proved life threatening and in fact some have been proved to affect the fertility of humans and infact can be threatening to human race.We should spread awareness and educate people about the chemicals used in a product prior to buying a product.And those whose fertility has been affected can follow exercises and some habit modifications that can stimulate or increase fertility.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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