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Friday, March 9, 2012

Misuse of A Vietnam Era Tragedy


(Originally posted on Biofortified, 3/9/12)
Mark Twain once said, "A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."  There was a perfect example of that last week.  The Center for Food Safety (CFFS) spread the term, "Agent Orange Corn" for Dow AgroSciences' new biotech corn hybrids that are working their way through the regulatory process.   These hybrids have been modified to be more resistant to 2,4-D, an herbicide that was introduced in 1948.  This is being cast as a return to the use of Agent Orange and that is completely untrue.  There is a lot of interesting detail behind this, but the CFFS moniker for the corn is a classic case of information twisting - twisting in a way that is intentionally misleading.  The reason that the term "Agent Orange Corn" is inaccurate can be discovered in a 1-minute Wikipedia search, but this did not prevent a host of of bloggers,environmental and Organic organizations, and even "news outlets" from uncritically passing along the disinformation.

The Link Between This New Corn Trait and Agent Orange

Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam War, was made with two herbicides:  2,4-D (the one that the new corn tolerates), and 2,4,5-T.  The 2,4,5-T was unknowingly contaminated with a dioxin, something that was only later recognized as a significant human safety issue.  Yes, 2,4-D was part of Agent Orange, but it wasn't what made Agent Orange a danger back in the 1960s.  In fact, for decades, 2,4-D has continued to be one of the most widely used, safest herbicides in the world.  It is registered in 70 countries, including those with very comprehensive and cautious regulators (Canada, the UK, Germany, France, Japan...). 2, 4 D is a component of most consumer products for the control of weeds in lawns.  It is used extensively in wheat.  It can already be used on corn up to a certain growth stage.  2,4-D is NOT Agent Orange.

I'ts Not The 1960s (that is a good thing!)

There was a very limited understanding of environmental  toxicology in America in the early 1960s.  The modern environmental movement was just beginning, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was not established until 1968.  So during the early 1960s,  terrible mistakes were made with Agent Orange that are completely unthinkable today.  Since that time the scrutiny of new and old pesticides has become comprehensive.  It would be virtually impossible for an Agent Orange-like mistake could occur today, but that is what CFFS and its repeaters are implying.

Why is 2,4-D Still Around?

A great many of the pesticides that were in use in the early 1960s have long since been banned or progressively replaced with far, far safer alternatives.  A few, like 2,4-D, have continued to pass safety standards as they have been intensively reviewed and re-reviewed over the decades of increasingly sophisticated analysis.  2,4-D has been scrutinized and challenged from both a toxicological and epidemiological perspective.  In every round of risk assessment, the EPA and its outside experts have concluded that 2,4-D has meets the EPA's, ever more cautious, standards.

Why Would Farmer's Want This New Corn?

Farmers in the US and elsewhere have been moving increasingly towards the control of weeds with herbicides rather than with mechanical methods called "tillage."  This is actually an extremely good thing from an environmental point of view.  An image like that by Leo Breslau below looks romantic, but it actually represents an environmental disaster.

Plowed and tilled soils are susceptible to erosion.  Erosion carries not just sediments, but also fertilizers and pesticide residues into streams.  The mechanical disturbance of soil degrades its properties over time so that it becomes less able to capture and store rain and less able to sequester nutrients.  This sort of farming "worked" in many cases only because there was more "virgin land" to start plowing.  Beginning in 1960, some farmers began to experiment with "no-till" farming methods on a commercial scale.  One of the reasons they were able to do that was because herbicides like 2,4-D had become available.  Since the development of herbicide tolerant crops in 1996, the rate of conversion to no-till farming has been accelerating. From an environmental point of view, expansion of no-till farming  is highly desirable, especially if  combined with some other key practices. For farmers to successfully implement no-till farming; however, there must be a range of effective herbicide options.

Resistant Weeds

When any one herbicide is used too much, some weeds can become resistant.  As many experts predicted, this has begun to happen for glyphosate tolerance (Roundup Ready).  The selection for herbicide tolerant weeds is not something new with biotech crops.  It is a problem that has occurred many times, long before GMO crops.  They key is to employ multiple options including herbicides with different "modes of action," cultural methods like cover crops or planting date shifts, and in some cases the judicious use of tillage.   Recently, some weed scientists have highlighted the need for more sophisticated and varied weed control strategies.   The new corn and soybean types that are coming can be a part of that strategy if employed strategically.  The alternative of returning to mainly mechanical weed control is not an acceptable scenario.
Groups like the Center For Food Safety have generated furor by shouting an intentionally sensational half-truth.  Ironically, this has put them in the position of advocating against a tool farmers need for environmentally sustainable farming.  This new corn, and the soybeans that will follow, are part of what will enable land-use efficient, low environmental footprint farming. They have nothing to do with a 50 year old defoliant. There is absolutely no doubt that the lessons from "Agent Orange" must be remembered.  The innocent victims of Agent Orange deserve that heightened awareness.  What they don't deserve is to have their tragedy exploited in an irresponsible way.
The "Comment Period" at the USDA about this particular corn technology has been extended until April 27th.  The CFFS and its allies are mobilizing people to enter comments.  There is a need for counter-balancing arguments from those that understand the importance of technology in agriculture.  Here is where to comment (USDA BRS Comments) before the extended deadline of 4/27/12.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com
Vietnam spraying image from Wikipedia
Leo Breslau "Plowing" image from the Smithsonian

24 comments:

  1. RE: Agent Orange
    2,4-D exposure is associated with various forms of cancer, Parkinson's Disease, nerve damage, hormone disruption and birth defects.

    Thirty-five medical and public health professionals professionals have signed on to a letter to the USDA warning of health threats that could accompany the huge an increase in 2,4-D use that is expected to result from approval of the genetically engineered seed.

    So if you think it's so safe, why don't you serve some of the corn to your own family. I'll pass as will anyone in their right mind.

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    Replies
    1. Anonymous,

      because of its long use and the AO connection, 2,4-D has been scrutinized more than just about any pesticide. A lot more than 35 toxicology experts, epidemiologists, etc have been involved in that process, not just in the US but around the world. The toxicology has always come back meeting very strict risk margins. The various "associations" that have been found via epidemiological studies have always failed to be convincing enough.

      As for whether this represents a "huge" new use, it represents a very small change in human exposure. A farmer applying it to a field is nothing compared to all the exposure that can occur on the lawns, golf courses, parks and sporting fields. That has not been problematic and has been going on for decades.

      This isn't the sort of corn one serves your family except in some food ingredients or via the animals it fed. Even so, I wouldn't hesitate to pick some of that corn immature (what the first sweet corn was) and feed it to my family. There is nothing actually scary about that except this misused name

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    2. You are quoted today in The NY Times for your support for the 2,4-D resistant corn as part of our strategy to increase food production. The article reports problems with overspray damaging nearby crops of tomatoes. It seems to me that this is a major problem.
      Whatever the effect 2,4-D has on humans, it kills nearby crops that are not resistant. Crop spraying is a practice with few real safeguards. Being human, we screw up. Better find another way to kill the weeds. Chemicals are not the solution.

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    3. Steve Savage-
      You are quoted today in the NY Times Business section in support of the approval of Dow's 2,4-D resistant corn in an indirect way. "The victims of Agent Orange do not deserve "to have their tragedy exploited in an irresponsible way."
      Perhaps you know a victim of Agent Orange poisoning who needs to be protected from exploitation by groups attempting to reduce the amounts of poisons we put in the air. I'd be happy to introduce you to some who are in support of banning 2,4-D resistant corn from approval because of the amount of 2,4-D that will then be sprayed from the air.
      The problem, though, is that it kills tomatoes, too, and you cannot protect adjacent fields. The laws of atmospheric physics and human error promise to make this a huge mistake with great collateral damage.

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    4. Harmonic Jim,
      Yes, I saw that article. 2,4-D can definitely damage broadleaf crops, but that is something that has been mostly managed for a long time. For instance, any homeowner or lawn care company can damage ornamental crops around lawns when treating, but with a little care it is avoidable. 2,4-D has been used on a very large scale in wheat and on young corn for decades and the problems with neighboring crops have been minimal (also, we are mostly talking about soybeans, cotton or peanuts in the areas were most corn is grown). Even so, Dow has developed a new formulation of 2,4-D that has much less volatility. Finding "another way" to kill weeds isn't as easy as you might think, and the old way (tillage) is definitely bad for the environment.

      I don't really foresee big problems with this, but if there ever are there is plenty of precedent for recovering damages if someone messes up. These are certainly not new issues to the farming community.

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    5. Harmonic Jim,

      First of all, the majority of corn herbicides are ground applied, not sprayed from the air. Also, when you use the term "poisons" I wonder what you are imagining for 2,4-D. Look up any MSDS for a 2,4-D product and you will see that it is essentially non-toxic to animals or much of anything except broadleaf plants. Caffeine is far,far more toxic and so are a host of other natural products and Organic approved pesticides.

      Don't assume that all pesticides live up to your image of a "poison." The old ones that did are mostly long gone from the market

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    6. It may be true that the problems of 2,4-D resistant crops and increased 2,4-D use can "mostly" be managed. "Mostly", in the sense of 90% or more managed? This still leaves a lot of acres affected by normal use of 2,4-D. Legal remedies for small formers harmed by Dow? Unless a white shoe law firm steps up with a class action suit, there goes the farm
      As to human safety issues. Most workers are safe in "normal" use. Greater than "normal" exposure leads to serious illness and death. Read the MSDS. If this were a toxicology study we would expect to see an MD 50 affecting thousands of workers. That means thousands of deaths. The problems in large scale industrial production cannot be minimized. Comparisons to lawn care are misleading at best. I use Roundup on poison ivy in my hedge with an artist's brush. There are serious scaling problems.
      Perhaps there are better ways to plant than harrow and tillage.

      There are additional public relations problems with patented seeds and the general sense is that food production should not be left to the corporations.
      It is true that most of the millions of acres under monoculture don't affect the surrounding farmers who are all using the same products. The toxicity levels will have and effect.
      I see huge drums of 2,4-D being oured into ground spreaders, spilling it into the soil or the shed floor. I see people taking off their gloves and masks when it's hot. I know this not because I work in agriculture, but because I work in industrial distribution. Men are careless and lack supervision. Barrels of chemicals are are dropped and spills are not contained immediately.Tales from the Vietnam War abound with same theme. We are not good enough to handle dangerous materials. We do it, but we do it badly. One more dangerous chemical to avoid using is large quantities.
      Developing perfect strains of staple grains has been a staple diet of science fiction for years. It will remain a fiction until our knowledge of the true nature of our planet's life forms develops.
      I believe strongly that science can develop better ways to cultivate the soil. I don't agree that these resistant plants are the answer. Perhaps there is no "solution" Only a continued attention to detail and a resistance to chemical answers.
      I am not convinced.

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    7. It may be true that the problems of 2,4-D resistant crops and increased 2,4-D use can "mostly" be managed. "Mostly", in the sense of 90% or more managed? This still leaves a lot of acres affected by normal use of 2,4-D. Legal remedies for small formers harmed by Dow? Unless a white shoe law firm steps up with a class action suit, there goes the farm
      As to human safety issues. Most workers are safe in "normal" use. Greater than "normal" exposure leads to serious illness and death. Read the MSDS. If this were a toxicology study we would expect to see an MD 50 affecting thousands of workers. That means thousands of deaths. The problems in large scale industrial production cannot be minimized. Comparisons to lawn care are misleading at best. I use Roundup on poison ivy in my hedge with an artist's brush. There are serious scaling problems.
      Perhaps there are better ways to plant than harrow and tillage.

      There are additional public relations problems with patented seeds and the general sense is that food production should not be left to the corporations.
      It is true that most of the millions of acres under monoculture don't affect the surrounding farmers who are all using the same products. The toxicity levels will have and effect.
      I see huge drums of 2,4-D being oured into ground spreaders, spilling it into the soil or the shed floor. I see people taking off their gloves and masks when it's hot. I know this not because I work in agriculture, but because I work in industrial distribution. Men are careless and lack supervision. Barrels of chemicals are are dropped and spills are not contained immediately.Tales from the Vietnam War abound with same theme. We are not good enough to handle dangerous materials. We do it, but we do it badly. One more dangerous chemical to avoid using is large quantities.
      Developing perfect strains of staple grains has been a staple diet of science fiction for years. It will remain a fiction until our knowledge of the true nature of our planet's life forms develops.
      I believe strongly that science can develop better ways to cultivate the soil. I don't agree that these resistant plants are the answer. Perhaps there is no "solution" Only a continued attention to detail and a resistance to chemical answers.
      I am not convinced.

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    8. Harmonic,
      You don't need to comment three times. I was just eating dinner and not moderating. Mostly is a lot more than 99%. The legal remedies for spray drift issues are between farmers. I read the MSDS and there is essentially nothing there to suggest risk. Do you understand toxicology? This is what a super safe product looks like. What do you mean by an "MD 50"? Look, if this product was dangerous thousands of homeowners over the past 40 years would have been injured since they have no education in pesticide safety. That never happened and for good reasons.

      Do you actually know anything about farming? Farmers do know how to handle dangerous materials, but in the case of 2,4-D it isn't really dangerous at all.

      Remember, you are talking about a product that has been used quite safely on a huge scale for decades. Calm yourself

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    9. You are most kind to elaborate on this issue. Thanks for your thoughts as I try to become better informed about 2,4-D.
      I was taking my toxicology information from the National Pesticide Information Center's (NPIC) publication available on line. There are lethal doses of 2,4-D ingestion and case studies of 69 workers who were poisoned, 23 died. So, 2,4-D is not quite harmless.
      I was also referring to the NY Times article which stated that 2,4-D is not widely used. This would change, if the approval goes forward, a great deal more 2,4-D will be produced, applied and, consequently more would be mishandled. This would be especially so if workers were told that it was essentially harmless. There is no doubt that it will work and produce revenue for manufacturer and large agribusiness for a time. So we come back to the great arms race between farmers and mother nature who abhhors monoculture. It is a mystery scientists are still unravelling.
      I am a long time fan of science fiction and an educated layman scientific reader (armchair scientist) with an active imagination who has worked in industrial distribution for forty years. I love scientific progress and deplore the inaccurate popularization of discoveries and selling of technology while keeping people uneducated about the true nature of our science, stumbling along forward but imperfect and subject to manipulation by money.
      I would cherish the hope we could go in another direction, develop edible weeds and breed goats to despise corn so they could wander between the rows, fertilizing the corn and providing us with food, and eating the weeds. Since this is not the way to grow billions of acres of staple crops, I suppose we will have to go with whatever GM products we can safely use and expect accidents.
      In the meantime, who wil be doing the research that makes these things unneccessary?

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    10. Harmonic Jim,
      I don't know about your goat idea, but there are thousands of researchers in the public and private sector that are constantly working on newer, better and safer farming methods. That is the only reason we have been able to keep up with food demand. I've been involved with farming and its supporting technologies for 35 years now and I've seen remarkable improvements. It isn't easy to keep up with nature because it often finds a way around us. For instance, there was a genetic resistance to stem rust in wheat that was introduced during the Green Revolution back in the 1960s. Finally in 1999 a new strain of the fungus overcame that resistance. There has been a massive, coordinated efforts by public and private wheat breeders around the world to find a new resistance gene and to get that crossed into the hundreds of very specific wheat types that are grown. It is looking like that will succeed, but most people will never know that such a huge part of the food supply was in very real danger.

      What hasn't been happening as much as would be ideal is international funding of research and crop development for parts of the third world (Africa particularly). Governments have dropped off in that funding, partially in response to misguided criticism by "Green" and Organic advocates. If it weren't for the Gates Foundation we would be in bad shape since they have stepped in to fund many good things.

      I don't know of any group that is "Keeping people uneducated about the true nature of our science" as you say. There are a great many people who don't understand the science, particularly genetics and toxicology, but all the information is out there to make that unnecessary. Our schools don't do a good job of providing a foundation, but there is no conspiracy there - just a failing.

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    11. Thank you for a lot of good information. I rather like my goats!
      The green revolution has been a boon, and I think we should hope research will keep us moving toward greater yields and more sustainability. It is important, essential, I believe, to always proceed slowly and cautiously in applications of our research when it involves the use of so many tons of chemicals. Unintended consequences are to be expected. Strong and furious opposition should use every tool at their disposal to counter enormous corporate public relations budgets. Irrational fear may kill our best hopes for a better world. I see that in many personal interchanges every day. People are badly educated.
      Those groups "Keeping people uneducated about our sciences?"
      There are groups that oppose, for instance, the teaching of evolutionary theory. That may be one example.
      Another bourbon, barkeep!
      But don't get me started. Did I say conspiracy? Never.

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    12. Harmonic Jim,
      I like your goat idea too, but breeding goats to avoid an easy food source seems like a stretch.
      When you talk about "tons of chemicals" it would be useful to know that over the years the use rates have gone down from many pound/acre to ounces/acre. When you talk about a crop that is planted on millions of acres, the weight can sound big, but on each acre the amounts are actually quite small.

      I'm with you on concern about people teaching something other than evolutionary theory. It isn't unacceptable to question that theory, but there are very few elementary or secondary teachers who know enough to teach this subject with a full awareness of the cutting edge of molecular genetics. In many cases, the opponents of evolution theory are working with an understanding of the science that is decades old.

      I'm not a bourbon fan, but I do love wine. I'm glad you reject conspiracy on this topic

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    13. On the other hand, I condone the attention-getting hook about Agent Orange. I do know many vets who would rather see less chemicals and more goats. It is important to counter the myth of "we know what's best" with "you always say that, but look what happened."
      Let's not forget how much corn is raised for ethanol so we don't confuse more production with more food.
      At one time corn was grown is such abundance that the only way to get it east was to make it into whiskey. But that was then, and this is now.

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    14. Jim,
      It would be interesting to ask Vietnam war vets how many of them used 2,4-D containing herbicides on their lawns for the last 30 years. Yes, there is a good deal of corn raised for ethanol. I don't think that wiskey has ever been limited by corn ethanol of a different type. It was sort of humorous, but understandable when Jack Daniels said it wouldn't use GMO corn. They have a 10-year aging process and realized that they couldn't predict where the anti-GMO thing would go.

      So, you can drink some Jack Daniels and know that you are safe from GMOs.

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    15. Cheers! Are you sure this isn't Applied Mixology? The best mix results in the best drink.
      It is unkind to say these vets are proof that 2,4-D is harmless. Though they may have been applying 2,4-D unknowingly for the pat thirty years, they still suffer from unexplained skin problems and eruptions of acne. No studies have been done on this. VA would like to wash their hands of it. But harm was done. Care was not taken. A man's life extends far beyond his youth. We grow old and our youth catches up with us. Continued exposure may have damaging effects.
      I don't care what they make Bourbon from. By the time I drink it, it's been aged in the truck and completely free of anything but the chemicals released from charred oak. Plenty of harm there. I am blessed with robust good health and eat good food prepared with love. That's how I stay healthy. How's that for a myth?

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    16. Harmonic,
      How can you say, "no studies have been done one this?" There have probably been more studies done on this chemical mix(AO) than any other. They all concluded that the issue was a contaminant in the other ingredient, 2,4,5-T. I think the VA finally dealt with this after years of denial.

      If people did the sort of tox studies with the various ingredients of Borbon that they have done with 2,4-D, they would almost certainly have found issues. It is just that there is no regulatory cause or deep pocket to pay for that.

      I'm glad you are blest with robust health. I am as well (though my drink of choice is wine).

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    17. I think you misunderstand me. I mean that no one has ever asked my friends when they go to the VA hospital with unexplained outbreaks of acne if they have been handling garden chemicals. My point is always that large scale industrial farming and chemical use are prctices that need regulation and close examination of claims of safety. That is what is going on in the PR war between big chem and big environment. Big Chem wields big power and makes big claims for safety. The environmental movement battles back with big scare. Whether 2,4-D, Glyphosate or DDT, I side with caution and restriction. Remove farm subsidies and encourage alternatives. Most of these subsidies are not for human food but for fuel and animal feed. A reduction in production would hurt in the short run, but alternative management, (even if not goats) should be the goal of research, not chemical management.
      I understand that DDT impregnated mosquito netting is very effective in mosquito control and mosquito vector disease. I am not a Luddite. I believe in improvement through scientific understanding and technology. I am also convinced that our place in the ecology of the planet will never be ours to determine. Our best hope is to accept that and make it our model.

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    18. Jim,
      Pesticides and agriculture in general are intensely regulated. I actually think it is a good example of effective regulation (vs folks that think all regulation is bad). I agree that there is something that should be called "big scare." I'm not a fan of farm subsidies in general, but I would point out that animal feed is just a step away from human food.

      You can say that a reduction in production would be a short term hurt, but you have to realize how much the rest of the world relies on US grain production. Both rich countries in the EU or Middle East or Japan rely on us. So do many poor countries. We have a huge responsibility.

      As for mosquito netting. These days it is mostly impregnated with pyrethroids and hopefully a few other options to prevent resistant. You are right that this is a huge benefit.

      I agree that we need to be very thoughtful about our role in the ecology of the planet. After 35 years of observation of agriculture I feel that we are making great progress towards that goal with an industry that, by definition, has a huge physical footprint in the world

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    19. A huge physical footprint. 40 million acres of corn for ethanol. Yes much is for feed, very close to human consumption. Essential, not so much.

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  2. Duh?

    Corn has never been susceptible to 2,4-D a synthetic plant auxin that only affects dicots.

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    Replies
    1. Anonymous,
      Actually, although 2,4-D has long been used on young corn, it does cause damage to older plants. For some of the problem weeds, there is a need for a later post-emergence application and that is the logic for the new corn. In general you are right that 2,4-D is mostly for broadleaf weeds and thus this trait is actually more important for soy and cotton.

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  3. "GMO containing foods have been on the market for 16 years without incident" Tell that to test animals got so sick and died. Gmo not harmful? After eating a diet of GMO food, after a few generations, most animals have do not have the ability to reproduce. Should we wait several generations to go by before we stop this nonsense? No thanks on the agent orange or roundup on my food.

    If Monsanto has nothing to hide, why did they just buy the company that just found out their products are causing a large bee die off in GMO producing countries? Take that you corporate hack.

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    Replies
    1. Anonymous,
      You apparently are uncritically believing anything you read on the internet (not really a good idea). If "most animals lose the ability to reproduce" why do we still have a meat and milk supply? Why do they have a supply in Europe where animals have been fed a great deal of GMO feed for so long? Could it be that this is just a myth? Perhaps you should consider the independent, European analysis of 24 long-term GMO feeding studies that showed no problems.

      http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/2011/12/24-long-term-feeding-studies-reviewed.html


      There has been no connection between bee mortality and GM crops.

      Agent Orange has not been produced for decades. It was never used in the US. No one is planning to use it anywhere.

      My interest in this topic is based on knowing what tools farmers would like to be able to use. I am not paid by anyone to spend the time I spend writing.

      Delete

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