American farmers are among the biggest supporters of genetically modified crops on the planet, saying you can't argue with the results of higher yields for less work, in spite of concerns — especially in Europe — about Frankenfoods. But even U.S. farmers have their limits.
They're going public in what to date has been a back-room battle with two big agricultural giants over the kinds of herbicides that can be sprayed on certain crops. The details might sound like a chemistry lesson to some, but the farmers believe what's at stake is not only their livelihoods but possibly the social fabric of America's farming communities.
The problem: One agricultural company has agreed with the farmers' concerns and changed its plans. Another, though, is resisting, and the farmers are not happy.
This group of Midwest vegetable farmers has failed to convince Monsanto to reformulate an herbicide that could become one of the most widely used in the nation.
But they were able to get another company, Dow AgroSciences, to agree to changes to an herbicide it has on the market. Those changes will protect their fields, the farmers say.
Monsanto officials "have just dug their feet in," said Steve Smith, chairman of the Save Our Crops group. "I'm not here to be a salesman for Dow, but I'm here to stand up when people do the right thing," he said. "Dow did."
The trouble concerns two herbicides, 2,4-D and dicamba. Both have been used for more than 40 years in small amounts, but are about to get a lot more popular.
New corn and soybean varieties genetically modified to withstand these herbicides are expected to be approved in the next few years. The federal comment period for one, 2, 4-D, ended on March 11.
These vegetable farmers have no problems with GM crops.
Rather, the veggie farmers are concerned about a much older problem with the herbicides — something called drift.
Drift occurs when pesticides sprayed to kill weeds in one field waft into neighboring fields, damaging and killing nearby crops. In California in 2012, herbicide sprayed in the San Joaquin Valley drifted and damaged cotton fields 100 miles away.
The new corn and soybean varieties are the latest versions of seed technology that have become hugely popular with U.S. farmers.
Since 1996, farmers have been planting GM crops that can survive being sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate, known to backyard gardeners as Roundup. By 2013, 93% of all soybeans and 85% of all feed corn grown in the USA were glyphosate resistant.
Farmers let both crops and weeds grow up a few weeks, and then spray with glyphosate. The weeds die. The glyphosate-resistant crops don't.
Unfortunately, the technology has proven so popular that "overuse and misuse by farmers and the biotech industry has led to the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds," said Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Agricultural companies have been working double time to give farmers new weed-control tools. These latest seed varieties are resistant to stronger herbicides to which the weeds haven't yet built up resistance.
If the regulatory process continues without hiccups, Dow is about a year away from the first sales of its Enlist corn and soybeans, resistant to the herbicide 2,4-D.
Monsanto is estimated to be about two years away from selling Roundup Ready 2 Extend corn and soy. These are resistant to the herbicide dicamba.
Both herbicides mimic a naturally occurring plant growth hormone. "The plant literally grows itself to death," said Franklin Egan a research ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
The new seeds will be a boon to conventional soybean and corn farmers. Environmental and organic groups decry a potential increase in the use of herbicides overall. But farmers who trade in broadleaf vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes, squash, beans and peas are especially worried.
When the farmers first started hearing about the new GM crops, and the herbicides they would be used with, "it was a huge red flag," said Save Our Crops' Smith.
Both 2,4-D and dicamba are known to drift. While today they're used in relatively small amounts, Dow's Enlist and Monsanto's Roundup Ready 2 Extend products could easily mean tens of thousands of farmers switching to the new seed to deal with glyphosate-resistant weeds.
The herbicides are applied to fields as a liquid, from rigs pulled by tractors, said USDA's Egan. "The vast majority falls straight to the ground but a small fraction can move as water droplets carried by the wind. An even smaller fraction can evaporate and move as a gas," he said.
"It's like the blob that ate Tokyo," said Smith. It just oozes along and when it touches down it kills the plants it touches.
Farmers feared with millions more acres being sprayed with these drift-prone chemicals, their vegetable fields will be in danger. While the new genetically modified varieties of corn and soybean will resist the herbicides, their vegetables won't.
"You have a lot of crops that are sensitive to these herbicides," said Neil Rhodes, director of the herbicide stewardship program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. With vegetable farmers facing the prospect of a much larger area being sprayed with them in coming years, "I'm not surprised they're concerned."
Egan agrees. Vegetable farmers in the Midwest, where large amounts of corn and soybeans are grown, will be at "high risk" because they'll be in close proximity to fields being sprayed with 2,4-D and dicamba, he said.
To deal with the threat to their farms, vegetable growers formed the Save Our Crops Coalition, concerned about their crops being harmed by drift.
Save Our Crops member Jody Herr has seen it happen. He farms 2,800 acres in Lowell, Ind.
"I grow sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes and eggplant as well as corn and soy," he said.
In June, the plants in one of his tomato fields began to grow wrong. "The leaves were curled, the branches were twisted and misshapen. The fruit they set was deformed," he said.
Herr recognized the damage as typical for dicamba. He hadn't used it on his fields, but a neighbor had — on a field a mile and a half away.
He worries that if use of these two herbicides ramps up and nothing is done, it won't just damage fields, it will damage the fabric of farming communities themselves.
"You're accusing your neighbor of harming your stuff. You've got to live with these people your whole life, and your children will live with their children," he said.
The vegetable growers and processors came together to work on the issue. They first approached Dow in 2011, because its product was closest to coming to market.
"They weren't exactly thrilled with some of the original message," said Save our Crops' Smith. "But you know what? After several meetings of us sharing our concerns, we ended up finding some solutions that work for both of us."
The agreement was a no-brainer, said Dow spokesman Garry Hamlin. The vegetable farmers also buy Dow products. "We can't create an issue for one set of our customers to benefit another set of customers," he said.
Dow not only reformulated 2,4-D to make it less prone to vaporize and drift, but also rewrote the label to restrict farmers from using it when the wind was blowing toward a sensitive crop.
Growers are "required by law to follow the product label instructions," said Hamlin.
"They were good corporate citizens," said CSPI's Jaffe. "It's a win-win situation. Dow's customers can benefit from Dow's products, and yet these other farmers won't be hurt by it."
Save Our Crops met with Monsanto in 2013 but nothing came of it. "It became real apparent that they were intent on not making any changes," Smith said.
Monsanto's director of corporate affairs, Tom Helscher, said via e-mail, "we are confident that Monsanto's dicamba-tolerant crops will provide farmers an additional tool for effective weed control that can coexist with the row and specialty crops grown by the Coalition's members."
Save Our Crops isn't convinced. Smith called Monsanto's proposed label restrictions "woefully inadequate." The company "has so far been unwilling to constructively address, as Dow did, the very real threats growers face."
Just rewriting the label so farmers can't spray when the wind's blowing would help enormously. "It's the simplest thing to do and it costs them nothing," said Smith. "They absolutely refuse to make that change."
Jaffe's concern is that if the farmers can't work out a similar agreement with Monsanto, the playing field won't be level. Farmers will choose Monsanto's products because they come with fewer restrictions.
In a world where genetically engineered crops are often a flashpoint, seeing farmers and Dow come together to work out their differences, "was great," Jaffe said.
"I think we should applaud that and look to it as a model to do in the future."
Monsanto's Roundup Ready 2 Extend soybeans and corn still have multiple regulatory hoops to jump through because they can be commercialized. The USDA has to sign off on the seed and the Environmental Protection Agency has to agree to the new use of the herbicide dicamba.
The Save Our Crops Coalition "is confident" that both are paying attention, Smith said. They're hoping federal regulators will even the playing field, even if Monsanto won't.