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Jerry Davich: Modified crops may come with downwind backlash

Corn starts sprout from spring plantings as Jody Herr is photographed his Lowell Ind. farm Tuesday May 1 2012. Herr

Corn starts to sprout from spring plantings as Jody Herr is photographed at his Lowell, Ind. farm Tuesday May 1, 2012. Herr is opposed to the use of 2, 4-D, a chemical that could be used on corn to kill weeds that he says "is highly volatile and drifts," which could damage ornamental plants and vegetable crops, like the 300 acres of vegetables his farm grows. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 8, 2012 8:06AM



Jody Herr isn’t necessarily against genetically engineered crops, which is the inevitable evolution of farming in a world with more mouths to feed than ever before.

But at what cost if those super-seeded crops harvest a potentially dangerous byproduct affecting the food we eat?

That byproduct involves a powerful herbicide that the new high-tech crops — corn, in this case — are engineered to be immune to. The herbicide is called 2,4-D, once an ingredient in the notorious weapon during the Vietnam War called Agent Orange.

“It can be especially dangerous to specialty crops like mine,” said Herr, a 39-year-old third-generation farmer from Lowell who plants on some 2,800 acres.

It’s common practice for farmers — both locally and nationally — to spray a herbicide to kill unwanted and unruly weeds on their crops. The popular weed killer, Roundup, for example.

But some of today’s more radical weeds and plants, over repeated exposure to that herbicide, can become resistant to its killer chemicals. Enter stronger, more deadlier herbicides such as 2,4-D (2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic to be exact), the most widely used one in the world.

According to local farmers and industry officials, however, it easily vaporizes and drifts into places it shouldn’t be, such as neighbors’ farms, gardens and landscaping. The farmer-familiar buzzword for this is “volatilization.”

“Especially with high temps, high humidity and even a little wind,” explained Steve Smith, director of agriculture for the Indiana-based food processor Red Gold. “I explain volatilization to people like it’s the blob that ate Tokyo.”

Herr raises tomatoes for Red Gold, which explains the men’s connection to this issue.

The problem at hand is the herbicide’s “off target movement,” as it’s called, meaning how it drifts after it’s initially applied to weed-engulfed crops. Critics of this incidence and the expected overuse of 2,4-D claim it can cause cancer and other serious illnesses. Some even label the new modified crop “Agent Orange corn,” but I couldn’t find a local farmer to use that inflammatory phrase.

Companies behind genetically engineered crops claim this phrase is merely propaganda that blossomed into a handy scare tactic. Plus, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stands by its stance that 2,4-D is not a human carcinogen.

‘This is my life’

Smith also serves as chairman for the Save Our Crops Coalition, a grassroots group of farming interests organized solely to prevent injury to nontarget plants from exposure to 2,4-D and another older herbicide called dicamba.

“These herbicides are likely to be used far more extensively upon the introduction of new genetically modified crops tolerant to these herbicides,” a statement on the group’s website explains. “SOCC is not opposed to plant technology advances, particularly genetic modification. However, SOCC does oppose regulatory actions that would result in herbicide use that causes substantial injury to non-target crops and to the habitats necessary for their pollinators.”

In other words, many of these new genetically modified crops — designed to feed our growing nation and world — are engineered to be resistant to these two herbicides, among others. This newfound resistance will, in turn, prompt farmers to use the herbicides even more than they already do.

“It is the projection of a 1,070 percent increase in the use of 2,4-D that threatens the survival of the specialty crop production in the Midwest,” according to a statement on the Save Our Crops Coalition site, www.saveourcrops.org.

The coalition also opposes a pending petition by the Dow Chemical company for the nonregulated status of its 2,4-D-tolerant corn product, soon to be followed by a similarly resistant soybean, cotton and other crops.

Dow did not reply to me for input into this column, but it’s common knowledge that the company hopes for approval in time for next year’s planting season.

The coalition hopes to thwart, or at least delay, this approval until the U.S. government investigates this issue more in depth.

“We don’t want to appear as Chicken Little and the sky is falling, but this is a very serious issue,” said Smith, who claims it can potentially affect more than 130 million acres of crops nationwide, including in Northwest Indiana.

“This is my life and livelihood we’re talking about,” said Jody Herr, whose two sons also have farming plans in their future. Such a “volatilization” scenario happened to his property in 2009, when a neighbor’s herbicide accidentally drifted onto his crops from nearly 2 miles away. It cost him 40 percent of marketable fruit that year but, more importantly, it raised a red flag to this volatile controversy.

Why, I asked, hasn’t it happened again since then?

“I’ve been lucky,” he replied.

Find more of Jerry’s writings on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, and jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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