USDA is accepting public comments on the deregulation of 2, 4-D tolerant corn until February 27th, 2012.

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At the intersection of food, soil, climate, farming and water.

Massive Deregulation of Genetically-Engineered Crops

The USDA is considering allowing the release of 2, 4-D tolerant corn, while biotech giants battle for control of the seed industry in a panic over intellectual property rights.

In 2011, the USDA deregulated nine transgenic crops. This contrasts to the more standard two or three annual deregulations in previous years. The increase coincides with a scramble among the largest biotech companies over control of the seed industry. The fight precedes the patent expiration of Monsanto’s first commercially-released transgene, the original Roundup-Ready gene (RR1), expected to be off patent in 2014. Monsanto is trying to extend the RR1 patent for five to seven years, in order to maintain its domination of the seed industry. In 2009, they released crops with the Roundup Ready 2 gene (RR2), claiming they yield better than crops with the RR1 gene. The issues surrounding a generic RR1 transgene raises numerous questions about intellectual property rights to plants and animals.

DuPont (Monsanto’s competitor) and state and federal regulators are investigating claims that the company has violated patent and antitrust laws. In papers submitted to the Justice Department, DuPont stated that RR2 “offers little, if any, documented additional value to customers.” They also complain that Monsanto’s licensing agreements stipulate that if a competitor buys a seed company, that company cannot market products with Monsanto’s traits. With this provision, a seed company could not accept a bid from one of Monsanto’s competitors and expect to stay in business. DuPont claims the provision prevents bidding over seed companies.

Patent restrictions and complex licensing agreements make it hard for independent seed companies to stay in business and easy for companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, and Dow AgroSciences to raise seed prices. Prior to biotechnology and gene-patenting, independent seed companies had affordable access to novel, desirable traits from public breeding programs. Now transgenic crops cover the vast majority of farmland in the U.S. Transgenic crops were released in 1996. Rampant consolidation of seed companies followed their deregulation. Between 1995 and 2008, seed prices for transgenic corn increased 139% and transgenic soybeans increases 199%. Although farmers see some cost savings with transgenic crops, they can be offset by increased herbicide use and rising seed and fertilizer prices.

The next transgenic crop up for deregulation is corn that can tolerate post-emergence applications of the herbicide 2, 4-D. The transgene used in this crop is derived from Sphingobium herbicidovorans, a soil bacterium that has evolved to use herbicides to promote its growth. When Roundup-Ready crops were released they were touted as a safer alternative (herbicides with glyphosate as the active ingredient) to more toxic herbicides (i.e., 2, 4-D and paraquat). A December 2011 APHIS factsheet on the 2, 4-D tolerant corn says the transgene will “allow an increased application window for effective weed control.” Simply put, this means you can purchase and spray more herbicides than you could before. The same is said for crops with the RR2 gene.

Much of the interest in 2, 4-D relates to the increasing resistance of “super weeds” to glyphosate applications. 2, 4-D tolerant transgenic crops are the next product in the pipeline to keep farmers on the input treadmill. If this is the result of sixteen years of herbicide tolerant crops, what can we expect in another fifteen to twenty years when the 2, 4-D tolerant crops become ineffective and go off patent? Tougher weeds, more toxic herbicides, and higher seed prices?

The most recently deregulated transgenic crop is Monsanto’s drought-tolerant corn, granted approval at the end of December 2011. The active transgene in this crop is derived from another soil bacterium, Bacillus subtilis, which is able to survive harsh climates. The necessity of this crop’s deregulation is questionable. An environmental assessment by the USDA stated, “comparable varieties produced through conventional breeding techniques are readily available.” Monsanto claims that in its trials, under drought conditions, the transgenic crop has yielded 10% and 16% more than crops that weren’t engineered for drought tolerance. More extensive trials are planned for 2012. In long-term trials comparing conventional to organic agriculture, the Rodale Institute found that organic crops yielded 31% higher than conventional in years of drought. That’s 31% higher with no herbicides or genetic-engineering.

One of the earliest and most widespread transgenes today is derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt), which kills insect pests when they eat it. (Insects now resistant to Bt are on the rise.) Crops engineered with Bt were deregulated on the basis that the Bt toxin is degraded in the intestinal tract when livestock or humans eat it. Now the Bt toxin is showing up in the bloodstream of humans. What are the effects of adding enormous quantities of the genetic material from these bacteria (Sphingobium herbicidovorans, Bacillus Subtilis, or Bt) to our diets and or environment? Do the USDA or the biotech giants know?

Responding to an AP article on licensing, Monsanto stated, “If competitors invented a more attractive option, the industry could move to it immediately.” A more attractive option for the majority of people is to label foods that contain genetically-modified organisms (see the Just Label It campaign). Another option is to stop experimenting with the public in a mad dash to control agricultural production with unnecessary, untested patents.

The USDA is accepting public comments on the deregulation of 2, 4-D tolerant corn until February 27th, 2012.