Growing a new genetically modified (GMO) food using a chemical labeled by the Environmental Protection Agency as a "probable human carcinogen" is now legal, thanks to a quiet late-August approval by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The Center for Food Safety says the new Bayer CropScience genetically engineered soybean crop, called FG72, will likely cause a fourfold increase in the use of isoxaflutole, or IFT, a toxic herbicide. The chemical triggers liver and thyroid tumors in animal tests.
Although you might not eat soybeans directly (unless you're an edamame fan), you're likely eating soy almost every day, since soybeans are used as an ingredient in a vast array of processed foods. They're also a staple in livestock feed.
Chemical companies are developing new GMO crops in part because the current GMO crops designed for heavy Roundup (glyphosate) sprayings aren't working anymore—many problem weeds are outsmarting the chemical after just several years, forming resistance and turning into hard-to-kill superweeds. These resistant weeds are reportedly now found in nearly half of farmers' fields.
GMO, or GE, technology promised to reduce the amount of pesticides we use, but in 2009 alone, farmers dumped 57 million pounds of glyphosate on human and livestock food crops. The skyrocketing use of glyphosate with Roundup Ready GMO crops has wiped out ecological diversity in fields, decimating milkweed stands and causing the crash in monarch butterfly populations, explains Bill Freese, science policy analyst at Center for Food Safety. Killing field borders and diversity also kills other beneficial insects that keep crops from being overrun by insect pests.
"Bayer and other biotech companies are now poised to introduce a host of 'next-generation' GE crops resistant to more toxic herbicides as a false 'solution' to massive weed resistance. But their effect will be to generate still more intractable weeds resistant to multiple herbicides," Freese says.
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Although IFT is not a frequently used pesticide today, the chemical and its breakdown product persists in surface waters, where they are toxic to aquatic organisms and wild plants. It's also important to note that IFT is toxic to many vegetable crops, meaning vegetable farms near soybean fields sprayed with IFT could be damaged. "It's ironic that supposedly 'cutting-edge' biotechnology is taking American agriculture a half-century and more backwards into a more toxic past," Freese adds.
In fact, chemical companies are now turning to older, more toxic pesticides, as current GMO crops aren't killing weeds as promised.
Other toxic GMO crops are in the pipeline, too. Dow AgroSciences is waiting for USDA to approve its corn that can be sprayed with high levels of 2,4-D, an old pesticide containing a component that was used to formulate Agent Orange. Monsanto is also waiting for approval of dicamba, a highly volatile legacy chemical that can easily travel half a mile into other fields, where it can destroy popular farmer's market crops.
"Don't listen to the industry hype," Freese says. "Biotechnology means toxic, unsustainable agriculture. We need to evolve our agriculture beyond antiquated, pesticide-promoting GE crops towards cutting-edge agroecological techniques for managing weeds instead of eradicating them."
He says organic agriculture and low-input systems that minimize pesticide use are the better way forward.
To avoid these harmful chemicals, continue to demand organic. To save money or organic food, look for in-season whole foods, and cook with dried organic beans and organic pastured eggs for affordable protein sources.