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The SA Department of Agriculture has come under fire for issuing a clearance permit for genetically modified “Agent Orange” mealies to the US chemical and seeds giant Dow AgroSciences.
The seeds have been dubbed “Agent Orange” mealies because they have been genetically modified to resist the pesticide 2,4-D, which was a key ingredient of the highly toxic chemical mixtures sprayed over vast areas of Vietnam by the US military in the 1960s.
It was subsequently linked to thousands of deaths, poisoning or birth defects in Vietnam and among US military veterans and their families.
Although the modified seeds do not contain 2,4-D, critics believe that growing them will lead to the more widespread use of the Dow-manufactured pesticide.
The African Centre for Biosafety said that the new crop variety was predicted to lead to a thirtyfold increase in the use of 2,4-D worldwide. This posed potential threats to public health from mealies doused with the pesticide.
The centre said the Department of Agriculture issued a “commodity clearance permit” to Dow AgroSciences earlier this month for the modified seed variety DAS-40278-9, even though the US Department of Agriculture and the US Environmental Protection Department were still considering whether or not to grant approval for the planting of these crops.
Although it is unclear whether the SA permit would allow local farmers to plant the seeds or to feed them to livestock and poultry, the African Centre for Biosafety has interpreted the permit as the first “green light” for commercial use of the seeds in SA.
The department did not respond to queries on Monday, while Paarl-based Dow AgroSciences marketing consultant Kobus Meintjies told The Mercury that he was not aware of the approval.
The Industry Task Force II on 2,4-D Research Data, an industry lobby group sponsored by Dow Chemicals and other pesticide manufacturers, disputes on its website that 2,4-D causes cancer. This is despite several research studies linking the pesticide to a higher risk of blood cancer in exposed people and animals.
Earlier this month, the US agriculture department and environmental protection agency said they were working on a comprehensive safety review of a number of herbicide-resistant crops, including 2,4-D crop varieties.
The department noted that there had been a dramatic increase in the number of crops and weeds resistant to several herbicides planted in the US.
“In 2009, approximately 68 percent of corn planted in the US possessed resistance to a herbicide that was conferred through biotechnology.”
It also noted a dramatic increase in the use of several herbicides such as glyphosate, and that this could be attributed to widespread use of crops that had been genetically modified to resist these pesticides.
The Center for Food Safety, a lobby group in Washington DC, argues that several genetically modified crop varieties had been marketed as “solutions” to herbicide-resistant weeds, but that they were now spawning a “chemical arms race with weeds”.
The centre argues that gene-modified plants have little to do with “feeding the world” or reducing herbicide usage.
Instead, they are designed to reduce the cost of hiring labour to clear weeds from farms and to help consolidate agriculture into bigger farming operations.