While my sister-in-law put the finishing touches on Thanksgiving dinner, I listened to her friend recount the losing battle her husband, a Vietnam veteran, fought with lung cancer. She explained her husband’s illness was caused by his wartime exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange, produced primarily by two companies, Dow Chemical and Monsanto. Named for the colored band on its transport tanks, Agent Orange was a cocktail of chemicals, including an herbicide called 2,4-D. Shortly after the spraying — conducted to deprive guerrilla fighters of cover and a food supply — started in 1962, reports began to emerge of serious health effects, from birth defects to other illnesses. To this day, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs offers an Agent Orange registry health exam for the possible long-term problems caused by exposure, and more than 40,000 veterans have submitted disability claims. The Red Cross estimates that 1 million Vietnamese were affected, including third-generation children born with severe birth defects.
In January the U.S. Department of Agriculture opened a public comment period on the environmental and health impacts of a new suite of crops engineered to be resistant to 2,4-D. These corn and soybean plants, produced by Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, would be the first developed to be resistant to the herbicide.
According to experts, the introduction of these new crops could cause 2,4-D use to jump, big time. Chuck Benbrook, a pesticide policy expert with the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, has estimated that if it’s approved, the engineered corn could cause applications of 2,4-D to jump 20-fold by 2019.
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