USDA Set to Approve Agent Orange Corn (Ingredient 2,4-D)

Hard to believe that it was six years ago that I wrote a blog post about the ill-effects of Agent Orange, a herbicide manufactured by Dow Chemical and Monsanto for the U.S. Department of Defense. I cited a reference that explained the effect on Vietnam Veterans and from the chemical 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid or 2,4-D a major ingredient of Agent Orange.

During the war in Vietnam when herbicides were used to defoliate dense jungle, our veterans were not aware of the toxicity of the chemicals used.

As a result of the veterans exposure to 2,4-D in Vietnam, veterans are being diagnosed 20 years later with rare cancers, sarcomas, immune deficiencies and Central Nervous System disorders. Children of exposed veterans are born with Learning Disabilities, Birth Defects and deficiencies.


Vietnam Veterans are acutely aware of the deadly consequences of exposure to 2,4-D. Health and Welfare Canada and the United States Environmental Protection Agency have identified at least four different isomers of dioxin as contaminates in 2,4-D. These Dioxins include the 2,3,7,8-TCDD isomer, which is the most deadly poison known to man.

Two years ago it seemed that more awareness was coming and even news headlines admitted the severity and likelihood of harm caused to American soldiers who served in Vietnam:

This week more Vietnam veterans are becoming eligible for disability benefits.That’s because the U.S. government is expanding the list of diseases presumed to be caused by Agent Orange. Those veterans continue to raise awareness about the chemical they say is killing those who served.

The news seemed clear at that point. Agent Orange is a toxin.

It took several years for the U.S. government to recognize the effects of Agent Orange and the VA has identified a list of diseases associated with exposure, including numerous cancers, diabetes, birth defects and other disabilities.


The situation in Vietnam is particularly severe, as dioxin remains in the land and continues to poison the environment and the people. The Red Cross estimates that 3 million Vietnamese have been affected by Agent Orange, including 150,000 children born with severe birth defects…. Dioxin is still found in high concentrations in toxic hot spots throughout southern Vietnam, and continues to poison the food chain. Studies have linked dioxin to birth defects in children and grandchildren of those exposed, the site continues.

One might think that America would ban the use of the primary Agent Orange ingredients, right? Unfortunately, not. There has been a movement by the manufacturers of 2,4-D, one of the two major ingredients in Agent Orange, to link all the controversy and health risk to the other ingredient. Essentialy Dow Chemical has been trying to prove that their stuff was safe while Monsanto was the problem causing all the controversy. And this Dow Chemical movement to clear themselves has been extraordinarily successful.

The USDA is now seriously considering whether to approve newly genetically modified (GMO) Corn and Soybean that are designed to be resistant to 2,4-D. Why? Because Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup, apparently isn’t working anymore. The Monsanto Roundup Ready crops were introduced in 1996 to the US. Over the next ten years there was a nearly 400 million pound increase in herbicide use. Now weeds are said to have become Roundup resistant and Dow has started to ask whether they can step in to sell their stronger pesticides such as 2,4-D and engineer crops to be 2,4-D ready.

With that in mind the NYT reports that the EPA is ok with Agent Orange ingredient 2,4-D

Use of the chemical is expected to grow substantially in the coming years because Dow is seeking federal approval to sell seeds of corn genetically engineered to be resistant to 2,4-D.

Farmers planting that corn would be able to spray 2,4-D on their fields to kill weeds without hurting the crop. Now, 2,4-D is not used much on corn, the nation’s most widely grown crop.


In its ruling, the E.P.A. said that while some studies cited suggested that high doses of the chemical could be harmful, they did not establish lack of safety, and in some cases they were contradicted by other studies.

The agency in particular cited a study, financed by the 2,4-D manufacturers and conducted by Dow, in which the chemical was put into the feed of rats. The study did not show reproductive problems in the rats or problems in their offspring that might be expected if 2,4-D were disrupting hormone activity, the E.P.A. said.

The phrases “doses of the chemical could be harmful, they did not establish lack of safety” must be the key to this entire story. If we accept that Agent Orange is harmful only because of the other ingredient(s) then we should not find evidence of toxicity in 2,4-D.

Now take, for example, the “Case-Controlled Study of Canine Malignant Lymphoma: Positive Association with Dog Owner’s Use of 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid Herbicides” in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol 83 No. 17 September, 1991. Spraying your lawn with 2,4-D apparently gives your dogs cancer. That shows the chemical can be harmful. How is that safe?

To be fair the 24-D lobby has tried to discredit this and similar studies. Their logic is painfully weak, however, as found in their critique of a 2004 study from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association:

The authors speculate that “dogs with daily or weekly exposure to lawns treated with 2,4-D might be expected to chronically excrete 2,4-D in their urine where it would come in constant contact with bladder epithelium [cell wall].” The logical question: how could a dog in this study possibly be exposed daily? The labeled rate is maximum of two applications per year.

The 24-D lobby wants to emphasize the number of applications per year, a weak and false control to rely upon. They have no way of controlling the frequency of spray. More importantly they confuse a dog’s daily run with the frequency of spraying a pesticide. Obviously a dog could be exposed daily or weekly to a lawn that has 2,4-D applied. The logic of the study is sound, the critique is not.

Take, for another example, that 2,4-D can easily spread far beyond the intended target.

After visiting with Extension agents and consultants, Bill Robertson says there’s easily upwards of 200,000 to 250,000 acres of damaged cotton in Craighead, Greene, Poinsett, Mississippi and Cross counties.


“Generally, when we see something as widespread as this, it’s probably not due to a specific application as much as it is volatilization. When you have a product like 2,4-D put out in an inversion…it can sit on top of, say, 100 acres.

“So there’s 100 acres of material just waiting to move. When the wind hits, off it goes….”

Does that sound safe? Even more to the point, if GMO 2,4-D ready corn is approved it not only will make farmers completely dependent on the herbicide manufacturer for their livelihood (e.g. forcing them into an untenable position, as documented in Bitter Seeds) but it can devastate everything else in the vicinity that is not dependent. It’s my guess that the “safety” argument falls down quickly in real-world environments. 2,4-D is likely to cause harm as Roundup while also becoming as ineffective as Roundup. Then what? Approve the other ingredient in Agent Orange?

The ultimate irony of this situation is there is already a low risk alternative that also lets corn farmers be more self-sufficient. Corn gluten meal, a by product of corn processing, is an effective herbicide without any of the risks.

Corn gluten meal (CGM) is a natural substitute for synthetic pre-emergence herbicides. Pre-emergence herbicides attack seeds while they’re still in the ground, before the seedlings emerge from the soil. CGM is a by-product of commercial corn milling that contains the protein fraction of the corn. Its use poses no health risk to people or animals. In fact, because it is 60% protein, corn gluten meal is used as feed for cattle, poultry, fish, and dogs. In addition to the 60% protein, corn gluten meal is 10% nitrogen, by weight.

The use of corn gluten meal as an herbicide was discovered during turfgrass disease research conducted at Iowa State University. CGM was observed to prevent grass seeds from sprouting. Further research has shown that it also effectively prevents other seeds from sprouting, including seeds from many weeds such as crabgrass, chickweed, and even dandelions.

Note that nitrogen content. It means that the CGM also functions as a fertilizer, reducing an additional cost to the farmer. So you can see there’s a non-toxic alternative that can be locally-produced and has the ability to reduce fertilizer costs at the same time (GMO plants are not only more expensive but require additional fertilizer, by comparison). The CGM works only if toxic herbicides aren’t present, however.

Thus it seems what America is really deciding at this point is whether to encourage and support new innovation in non-toxic farming or to try and footnote the evidence of toxicity for 2,4-D. The big question the EPA and USDA should answer is they want to continue taking huge risks with 2,4-D since the damage can’t be reversed, given that alternatives exist and have no long-term harm.

3 thoughts on “USDA Set to Approve Agent Orange Corn (Ingredient 2,4-D)”

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