The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday it was leaning toward approval of Dow AgroSciences’ genetically altered Enlist corn and soybeans — a move which would free up the traits for release in Canada, where they’ve been approved since 2012.
U.S. approvals have been delayed in the wake of heavy criticism of the products by groups who say they will harm the environment.
The Enlist seeds are designed to be used in combination with Enlist Duo, a new herbicide developed by Dow that combines 2,4-D and glyphosate.
Dow says the crops and the herbicide combination, dubbed the Enlist Weed Control System, will help combat an explosion of crop-choking weeds around the U.S. that have become resistant to glyphosate, the chief ingredient in the popular Roundup herbicide sold by Dow rival Monsanto.
Dow officials cheered the USDA announcement, which followed over two years of scrutiny of Enlist by the agency. They said Enlist corn and soybeans should be on the market by 2015 — roughly two years after the initial target launch date. Enlist cotton should follow them at some point in the future, they added.
“Enlist will be a tool to help address the significant weed control problems that farmers are facing today,” the company said in a statement.
The original 2,4-D-and-glyphosate-tolerant Enlist corn and soybean traits were approved in Canada for food, feed, and environmental release in October 2012, but Dow has held them back from Canadian commercial release pending U.S. approval, “out of respect for movement of grain between the two countries.”
From an export marketing standpoint, if Enlist products were released in Canada before U.S. approvals are obtained, Canadian growers could be left unable to ship their Enlist corn south — although the bulk of Canadian corn is consumed domestically, either by livestock or in ethanol production.
The Enlist Duo herbicide combo is also already approved in Canada, where the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) cleared it last May.
Health Canada has also already approved the next-generation “Enlist E3″ trait stack in soybeans, which adds glufosinate herbicide tolerance to the Enlist genetic package. Glufosinate is best known as the active ingredient in Bayer CropScience’s Liberty line of herbicides.
Critics reacted with alarm to USDA’s announcement Friday and reiterated warnings that approval of the new biotech crops will only increase the use of pesticides and thus increase weed resistance over the long term.
The Center for Food Safety, a chief critic of Enlist, said that 2,4-D and other herbicides of its class have been independently associated with deadly immune system cancers, Parkinson’s disease, endocrine disruption, and reproductive problems.
“This is among the worst applications of biotechnology,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “They will increase the use of toxic pesticides in industrial agriculture while providing absolutely no benefit to consumers.”
Last May the USDA said it was extending its scrutiny of Enlist after receiving an onslaught of concerns from the public and biotech critics.
In its decision announced Friday, the USDA said it had completed a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for Enlist corn, and two types of Enlist soybeans and said its “preferred” option was approval of all three.
USDA noted in its statement that its regulatory authority is limited and it primarily evaluates the risks a new biotech crop presents to other crops or plants.
The draft EIS will now be available for public review and USDA said it will hold a “virtual public meeting” to receive feedback from the public before it makes a final regulatory decision.
USDA’s review comes at the same time that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the safety of Dow’s Enlist Duo herbicide. The EPA is expected to issue its proposed regulatory decision in the new few months.
As Dow pushes for approval of its new crop/herbicide combination, Monsanto, in conjunction with BASF, also is seeking regulatory approval for new genetically altered soybeans and cotton that resist a new dicamba-based herbicide.
– Carey Gillam is a Reuters correspondent covering ag commodities and agribusiness from St. Louis, Mo. Includes files from AGCanada.com Network staff.
Glufosinate tolerance cleared for Enlist soybean stack, June 19, 2013
Dow may hold back Enlist corn in Canada, Jan. 23, 2013
Dow’s 2,4-D-tolerant corn, soy traits get federal approval, Oct. 25, 2012