(Reuters) - A coalition of more than 2,000 U.S. farmers and food companies said Wednesday it is taking legal action to force government regulators to analyze potential problems with proposed biotech crops and the weed-killing chemicals to be sprayed over them.
Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical, and Monsanto Co. are among several global chemical and seed companies racing to roll out combinations of genetically altered crops and new herbicides designed to work with the crops as a way to counter rapidly spreading herbicide-resistant weeds that are choking millions of acres of U.S. farmland.
Dow and Monsanto say the new chemical combinations and new crops that tolerate those chemicals are badly needed by corn, soybean and cotton farmers as weeds increasingly resist treatments of the most commonly used herbicide - glyphosate-based Roundup.
"They (farmers) need this new technology," said Dow AgroScience Joe Vertin, global business leader for Dow's new herbicide-protected crops called "Enlist."
But critics say key ingredients in these new herbicides - 2,4-D for Dow and dicamba for Monsanto - already are in use in the marketplace and have proved damaging to "non-target" fields because they are hard to keep on target. Wind, heat and humidity can move the chemical particles miles down the road, damaging gardens, crops, trees. Many farms have suffered significant damage in recent years even though the chemicals are currently sprayed under tight restrictions.
"These are the most dangerous chemicals out there," said John Bode, a Washington lawyer hired by the Save Our Crops Coalition. Bode served as assistant Secretary of Agriculture in the Reagan administration.
Unlike many other protestors of new biotech crops, the coalition comprises many grower groups that use and support biotechnology. This is not a biotech complaint, they say, but one focused on the danger of the chemicals to be used with the biocrops.
"The danger that 2,4-D and dicamba pose is a real threat to crops...nearly every food crop," said Steve Smith, director of agriculture at Red Gold, the world's largest canned tomato processor, and a leader of the Save Our Crops Coalition.
The coalition represents more than 2,000 farmers and groups such as the Indiana Vegetable Growers Association, the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association, and major food processors Seneca and Red Gold.
Over the last four years, more than $1 million in damages have been filed in lawsuits and insurance claims by Midwestern growers who have suffered crop losses due to 2,4-D and dicamba that has drifted onto their farms, Smith said.
Those losses would increase with the new herbicide-tolerant crops because farmers would then be spraying more of the herbicides and later in the growing season, the coalition says.
In their legal petitions, the group is asking the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct an environmental impact study on the ramifications of a release of a new 2,4-D tolerant corn that is to be accompanied by Dow's new herbicide mix containing both 2,4-D and glyphosate. It wants a similar environmental impact statement on the dicamba and glyphosate herbicide tolerant crops being developed by Monsanto.
The coalition is also demanding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conduct a Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) meeting and appoint advisors to the panel to address herbicide spray drift.
The legal petitions are provided for as part of the regulatory process and require a response from the agencies before petitioners can file suit to force a response.
Dow's plans to roll out as early as 2013 its 2,4-D tolerant corn and new 2,4-D based herbicide as the "Enlist Weed Control System" is a hot button issue for many groups because of high profile problems in the past with 2,4-D, which was a component of Agent Orange defoliant used in Vietnam.
A separate petition started by the Center for Food Safety says that 2,4-D, will "likely harm people and their children, including farmers, and the environment" and says USDA has not properly assessed the impacts of Dow's plan for a new 2,4-D based crop system.
Dow AgroSciences executives say the fears are unwarranted as their herbicide formulation does not have the problematic "drift" and volatility problems that other 2,4-D formulations have that cause farms even miles away to be impacted when one farmer sprays the herbicide on his fields.
Dow says as long as farmers use their formulation under their specifications, they would not have the same problems associated with current versions of 2,4-D on the market.
"We're highly into stewardship and want to be sure the farmers get this right," said Dow spokeswoman Kenda Resler-Friend.
"Nobody wants trouble with their neighbor. They want to do the right thing." Kenda Resler-Friend.
Coalition members say no matter how good Dow's formulation might be, generic versions of 2,4-D on the market will be much cheaper and many farmers will use those more volatile versions on the new 2,4-D tolerant crops.
(Editing by Ryan Woo)