Reuters — The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday gave final approval to new genetically modified corn and soybeans developed by Dow AgroSciences that, while criticized by environmentalists and some farmers, are portrayed by Dow as an answer to weed resistance problems that limit crop production.
The approval may clear the way for a full launch of Enlist corn and soybean seed in Canada, where the traits have been approved since 2012 but held back from sale to farmers pending regulatory clearance in the U.S. [Related story]
From an export marketing standpoint, if Enlist products were released in Canada before U.S. approvals are obtained, Canadian growers could be left unable to ship their Enlist corn south, though most Canadian corn is consumed domestically, either by livestock or to make ethanol.
USDA approval of the specialty corn and soybeans, to be sold as part of a branded “Enlist weed control system,” means the traits could be on the market for the 2015 U.S. planting season, according to Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical.
Dow, however, is still awaiting approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the system’s companion herbicide. That approval is expected “in the near future,” Dow said Wednesday.
Enlist corn and soybeans have been genetically modified for tolerance to Enlist Duo herbicide, Dow’s “proprietary” blend of glyphosate and 2,4-D choline. Canadian regulators granted approval to Enlist Duo last year.
The company said Wednesday its “commercial intentions for Enlist” in the U.S. in 2015 will be provided after the EPA has issued its decision on Enlist Duo.
USDA’s decision, Dow noted Wednesday, also applies to the company’s “Enlist E3” soybean trait, which confers resistance to 2,4-D and glyphosate as well as glufosinate, best known as the active ingredient in Bayer CropScience’s Liberty herbicide line.
Enlist E3 soybeans have also been approved in Canada since June last year.
Dow this spring planned a limited “managed introduction” of the Enlist system in Canada through its “Field Forward” program, along with a series of demonstration-scale plots in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. [Related]
Like the popular Roundup Ready system developed by rival Monsanto, farmers who plant Enlist crops can spray their fields with Enlist herbicide and kill weeds but not the crops.
Corn and soybeans containing Monsanto’s Roundup Ready trait, which can tolerate sprayings of Roundup herbicide, make up roughly 90 per cent of U.S. corn and soybean plantings every spring.
But heavy use of Roundup has triggered an explosion of herbicide-resistant “super weeds” that are hard for farmers to fight and which can choke off crop yields.
The prevalence of resistant weeds has more than doubled since 2009 and so-called “super weeds” now infest roughly 70 million acres of U.S. farmland, according to Dow.
Because weeds have not yet developed resistance to Enlist, the system addresses the problem.
“Enlist will help farmers increase their productivity to meet the growing demand for a safe and affordable food supply,” Tim Hassinger, president of Dow AgroSciences, said in a statement.
Dow pegs the market opportunity for Enlist at about US$1 billion.
Monsanto is also developing a new biotech cropping system.
Opponents of a 2,4-D-tolerant crop have argued the use of the herbicide can cause potential health and environmental problems, including increasing weed resistance. And they fear the chemical will damage neighbouring farm fields. Fruit and vegetable farmers are particularly concerned that 2,4-D drift will lead to crop damage. But Dow has said the Enlist system is safe if properly used.
“The USDA approval of Enlist after such a fundamentally flawed review process is a slap in the face to farmers,” said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network (PAN). “Thousands of farmers have warned USDA of the crop damage, economic losses and health risks they will face from pesticide drift, if these 2,4-D-resistant seeds hit the market.”
Ishii-Eiteman hinted at a lawsuit, saying PAN would pursue “legal options” to protect farmers.
Dow on Wednesday described USDA’s review of the Enlist traits as “one of the most thorough reviews of a biotech trait in history.”
— Carey Gillam is a Reuters correspondent covering agribusiness from Kansas City. Includes files from AGCanada.com Network staff.