Controversy flares over "Agent Orange corn"

(CBS News) SEAFORD, Dela. - The food industry is embroiled in a controversy over what critics call "Agent Orange corn."

The genetically-modified vegetable is protected from a herbicide that kills so-called super-weeds, but is linked to the notorious "Agent Orange" used in Vietnam.

Many farmers are thrilled with the corn. But many critics think it will lead to more use of toxic chemicals.

Seventy-two-year-old Irvin Handy has been farming in Delaware his whole life. And that's meant a lifelong battle to kill enemy weeds, without killing his corn and soy crops.

That's why Handy has a consultant who advises him on an ever-changing chemical arsenal to keep the weeds at bay.

The weeds, he says, have been "terrible this year ... the worst I've ever seen."

Like a lot of farmers, Handy's seen an incredible uptick in "super"-weeds that just won't die. They're resistant to the chemical herbicides that used to work on them, like Roundup.

It's an expensive proposition when you look after 1,500 acres. Handy says he spends about $25 an acre to kill weeds.

Delaware was the first place these 'super weeds' popped up, in 1998.

Since then -- an epidemic, as the weeds spread across the country, confounding farmers and costing them millions as they search for new weapons.

Just how tough are the weeds to kill? So tough that a leading weapon in the fight against them is an herbicide made by Dow AgroSciences (part of the Dow Chemical Company) called 2,4-D, one of the components in Agent Orange, which was used by the U.S. military in Vietnam and has been notorious for links to cancer and birth defects.

Dow says the herbicide is perfectly safe, citing numerous government approvals.

But what has ecologists and food safety advocates worried is any idea that greater amounts of 2,4-D could be used on American crops due to a new innovation by Dow: corn that's resistant to 2,4-D.

Right now, 2,4-D can only be used on crops very early or late in the growing season, or it kills the crops along with the weeds.

But, Dow has developed a genetically modified corn called "Enlist," which is resistant to 2,4-D. That way, the herbicide could be used all season long.

Those concerned about food safety are asking: Are we going too far to stem the weeds?

"We no idea what the cumulative effects are," says Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of a group called "Just Label It." " ... What happens when you're exposed to more than one, two or three, let alone thousands of chemicals?"

Hirshberg has built a $400 million organic dairy business without using herbicides at all.

He says he's not against genetically modified food, but wants it to be labeled as such.

"I think if the average consumer understood the kind of chemical escalation going on out there, they would absolutely demand something quite different," Hirshberg says.

Agent Orange was a defoliant used to decimate the Southeast Asian jungles so the enemy couldn't hide.

Because of 2,4-D's links to Agent Orange, some opponents have dubbed the genetically modified corn "Agent Orange corn."

Still, the group Vietnam Veterans of America is stirring the pot.

Last month, it wrote President Obama, urging him to look into how increased use of 2,4-D might affect people.

Dow says it's safe for people and "no herbicide has been more extensively studied."

So far, federal regulators agree: In April, the EPA rejected environmentalists' petition to pull 2,4-D from the market. And, federal approval of Enlist corn is pending.

Most experts agree the primary human damage from Agent Orange came from a different ingredient. Dow says the comparison - and the nickname - are simply scare tactics - that the new 2,4-D is fundamentally different than the one used in Vietnam.

Meantime, Handy says he just wants solutions. Farming has long been equal parts elbow grease and chemistry. "If it was harder, I would find a way," Handy says, "but it's a lot easier with the chemicals and the chemistry that these people have produced for us."

To see Sharyl Attkisson's report, click on the video in the player above.

The battle over chemicals and genetically modified foods is also being fought in supermarkets and restaurants. Nicholas Stefanelli, executive chef at "Bibiana" in Washington, is one of the younger generation of chefs who pay close attention to the source of their ingredients. He spoke to "CBS This Morning" co-host Charlie Rose:


  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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