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Herbicides and 2, 4-D: Cutting Through the Controversy

September 24, 2014
A number of media outlets reported on last week’s decision by the USDA to approve the use of genetically modified corn and soybean seeds that are resistant to the herbicide known as 2, 4-D.

Farmers and growers, anxious for new tools in the ever-evolving fight against weeds, have been long awaiting the approval. The American Soybean Association, for example, issued a statement cheering the move and calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to now quickly finalize the label for the new low-volatility Enlist Duo herbicide that can be utilized with these soybeans to control resistant and difficult to manage weeds.  ASA also called upon foreign markets where U.S. soybeans are exported to quickly review and approve these new biotech events so that they can be commercialized here in the United States without jeopardizing export markets and U.S. farmers can realize their benefit.

But consideration of the new seed products and herbicide have not been without delays and controversy. When the USDA decided in May 2013 to conduct a long-term environmental impact statement (EIS), on the 2, 4-D resistant products, BIO expressed disappointment stating that the delay “sets bad precedent for future consideration of safe and beneficial genetically engineered plant products.”

But when USDA completed the EIS months later, opponent groups were still dissatisfied with USDA’s additional scrutiny. A Forbes article dissects the debate over the EIS when USDA recommended full deregulation for the 2, 4-D resistant corn and soybeans:

“What is 2,4-D? According to scientists, it’s an effective herbicide and plant growth regulator widely and safely used for decades in household weed killers, such as Scotts TurfBuilder, and also by farmers. To opponents, it’s ‘Agent Orange’.”

When approval finally came last week, the furor continued with anti-ag groups issuing press releases and coordinating a petition demanding President Obama step in and oppose EPA’s approval. On a September 22 episode, Dr. Oz weighed in on the debate and tried to link herbicide use to human health risk.  Fortunately, the Dr. Oz coverage of the issue included a statement from Dow:

“Products such as Enlist are evaluated by world-class regulatory agencies including the EPA, FDA and USDA. For this technology, the EPA has utilized decades of peer-reviewed studies for the foundation chemistry, and acknowledged this product has made significant scientific advancements.”

The Dr. Oz show also posed several questions to the EPA, which are answered on the Dr. Oz website.  In response to questions regarding potential human health impacts resulted from the herbicide’s use, the EPA said:

“Based on the best science and state of the art data, the Agency has determined that, when used according to labeled directions, there will be no harm to the American public as a result of the use of Enlist. EPA makes its decisions based on sound science. If additional information becomes available that would change our conclusions, EPA would move quickly to take appropriate regulatory action.”

It’s important that readers and viewers are able to separate fact from fiction. It’s important to remember that while USDA was considering the application for approval of these products, the Department received many comments, yet no new scientific issues about potential risks were raised.  Furthermore, the herbicides in question have been safely used for more than four decades.

The United States has always been a world leader in agriculture production with science and technology playing a key role in our success.  If we can’t get safe and proven technologies into the hands of farmers and growers, continued leadership in agriculture production is uncertain.


  • Pasted below is some fact-based information provided by Dow about these products and other common herbicides used every day in American agriculture.  More information is posted here.

  • USDA published a Questions and Answers document based on its EIS that is posted here.

  • On September 25, 2014, at 1pm (ET), GMO Answers will be on Reddit, participating in the “Ask Me Anything” series. Cathleen Enright, Ph.D., executive director of the Council for Biotechnology Information and GMO Answers spokesperson, will answer your questions about GMOs.

  • On the GMO Answers website, experts are committed to responding to questions about how our food is grown. Their goal is to make information about agricultural biotechnology easier to access and evaluate. Visit to ask your questions about these and other issues related to biotechnology and modern farming.

  • U.S. EPA has thoroughly evaluated 2,4-D and Enlist Duo through the regulatory process for Enlist. These evaluations include human health and environmental fate and are consistent with peer reviewed studies and findings over the last several decades.

  • 2,4-D has been used for more than 60 years and is approved for use in more than 70 countries worldwide.

  • Authorized uses of 2,4-D are based on extensive regulatory evaluations of a health and safety database that today exceeds 4,000 publications. It is one of the most extensively studied herbicides in existence.

  • U.S. regulatory health and safety evaluations granting authorized uses of 2,4-D (as well as other pesticides) already consider and factor in (as required by law) highly precautionary margins of protection to ensure that the needs of children and others have been addressed.

  • USDA has addressed questions related to 2,4-D and Agent Orange, which are expected to be raised in this program. Here is USDA’s posted answer for public consumption.

  • Q: Is 2,4-D the same thing as “Agent Orange” defoliant?  ...A: No. “Agent Orange” was a mixture of herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, kerosene and diesel fuel. Agent Orange contained high levels of dioxin, a contaminant found in 2,4,5-T that causes cancer and other health concerns in people. EPA cancelled all use of 2,4,5-T in 1985 because of these risks. By contrast, EPA has approved the use of 2,4-D and considers it safe when used according to the EPA-approved labeling.