Genetically modified crops resistant to 2,4-D spur debate, calls for labeling

FILE - This file photo taken Aug. 30, 2011, in Central Illinois shows farmer Jason Podany using a combine to harvest corn near Farmingdale, Ill. A bitter battle over whether high fructose corn syrup should simply be called "corn sugar" is headed for a federal courtroom in Los Angeles. A U.S. District Court judge on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011, is set to weigh a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the sugar industry which is upset that manufactures of high fructose corn syrup want to rebrand the product. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File) Seth Perlman

(CBS News) A debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is raging across the country from farms to the federal government. A company called Dow Chemical is on the verge of getting approval for a new genetically engineered corn that's supposed to be immune to the chemical weedkiller "2,4-D" - a primary component of Agent Orange, the New York Times reported.

Environmental advocates call the chemical a carcinogen  that's also linked to birth defects, dubbing the product "Agent Orange Corn" and saying it has no place near food grown in the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says Agent Orange exposure for soldiers during their military service has been tied to diseases such as amlyoidosis, hodgkin's disease, leukemia, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, multiple myeloma, Parkinson's disease, prostate cancer, several types of respiratory cancers, and other conditions. The VA Department also recognizes birth defects such as spina bifida tied to Agent Orange and other herbacides.

The Times however reported that most experts agree that the harm from Agent Orange was caused primarily by its other ingredient, 2,4,5-T, which was taken off the market years ago. The Environmental Protection Agency also rejected a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council to take the weedkiller off the market earlier this month, saying it was safe.

The victims of Agent Orange do not deserve "to have their tragedy exploited in an irresponsible way," Steve Savage, an agricultural consultant wrote in his blog, Applied Mythology, the Times reported.

Farmers, scientists and consumer groups scheduled a news conference on Thursday to urge U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to shut down Dow's regulatory application, Reuters reported. Some health advocates have also urged the USDA to reject Dow's application.

"Many studies show that 2,4-D exposure is associated with various forms of cancer, Parkinson's Disease, nerve damage, hormone disruption and birth defects," Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, told Reuters. "USDA must take these significant risks seriously and reject approval of this crop."

The controversy was discussed this past week at New York City's first Green Festival. Among the many environmentally friendly products on display, some of the leading consumer advocates shared their ideas for a healthier diet and a more sustainable environment. The proliferation of GMOs in the country's food supply and environment is of primary importance to many, including Jeffrey Smith of The Institute for Responsible Technology.

Smith told CBS News' Roland Marconi that there are currently nine genetically modified food crops with corn and soybean along with their derivatives being the most present. He said the new "GMOs resistant to 2,4-D" raise concerns because animal studies show the chemical contributes to major health problems for almost every organ system. That's why consumers and lawmakers across the country are pushing for mandatory labeling laws that would mention when food contains GMOs. Currently more than 20 states have introduced bills for mandatory labeling, Smith said. In California, for example, advocates expect the labeling requirement to be on the November ballot after gathering 850,000 signatures. More than 1.1 million consumers have also signed petitions to the FDA to label GMOs on products.

Dow defended the corn and said the chemical is safe, and more farmers need to be educated about its benefits.

"Although pesticide opponents continue to repeat the same old claims, the fact remains that EPA has thoroughly evaluated and responded to them, in great detail, on multiple occasions in the past, in a transparent public process in which all stakeholder opinions -including the opinions of pesticide opponents - were carefully taken into account by regulators charged with the protection of public health," Dow said in a company statement.

"This is going to be a solution that we are looking forward to bringing to farmers," Joe Vertin, Dow's global business leader for the initiative that's called "Enlist," told Reuters.

The American Farm Bureau Federation said in a statement it backs the new corn and thinks the USDA should grant its approval.

Updated 4/28/2012 2.07 P.M.:This story corrects an earlier version of this blog that inadvertently misrepresented the context of a quote from Steve Savage that was reprinted in The New York Times.

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