Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Damned If You Duo, Damned If You Don't

By Mallory ShipePublished November 6, 2014

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Recent EPA approval of the herbicide Enlist Duo has sparked debate across the nation about the political, environmental, and health implications of large-scale agriculture in the United States.
By Mallory Shipe, 11/6/14

Enlist Duo is an herbicide created by Dow Chemical to challenge Monsanto's slipping grip on the genetically modified seed/herbicide system market. Like Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn and soybean seeds, Enlist Duo is a product-linked herbicide, meaning it is intended for use specifically on Dow's genetically modified corn and soybean seeds. Farmers must buy the seed and the herbicide in order for the crop to grow. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, interferes with the synthesis of amino acids essential to plant growth. Roundup Ready corn and soybean seeds are genetically engineered to be glyphosate resistant, and are thus unaffected by Roundup application.

When they were first introduced, Roundup Ready seeds were very effective at killing weeds, improving crop yields, and increasing profits from agricultural production. But the propagation and overuse of the herbicide has caused weeds to develop resistance to Roundup. Currently, so-called "super weeds" affect 70 million acres of agricultural land in the United States.

With herbicide-resistant super weeds taking over America's heartland, farmers have had to substantially increase their herbicide use, and have been faced with increasingly higher input costs. Enlist Duo aims to reduce input costs and herbicide application by combining two potent chemicals: 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, and glyphosate. The "double tank" strategy of combining two herbicides in one decreases the rate at which a plant is able to adapt resistance, which is economically advantageous for farmers and big agribusiness companies alike, as it delays the amount of time before resistance develops and a newer, more potent herbicide must be created.

Despite numerous studies that link the toxin to endocrine disruption and neurotoxicity in laboratory rats, EPA maintains that Enlist Duo "is safe for everyone, including infants, the developing fetus, the elderly and more highly exposed groups such as agricultural workers."

In the USDA final impact assessment, it is estimated that EPA approval would increase use of Enlist Duo from 26 million to 176 million pounds per year.

In addition to associated health risks, the environmental impact of widespread adoption would be huge. Pollution of waterways, depletion of biodiversity, and species decline are all possible effects. Like many other historically deadly agricultural chemicals, Enlist Duo could completely wipe out keystone insect populations. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup Ready crops, has reduced the milkweed population so substantially that monarch butterflies, which rely on the plant for reproduction, are going extinct.

Currently, Enlist Duo is approved for use in in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. EPA is accepting comments on whether or not to enlist Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota until November 14.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed against EPA within days of releasing its final decision. Environmental and agricultural groups, including the Environmental Working Group, Earthjustice, and the National Family Farm Coalition have joined forces in pursuing legal action. The National Resource Defense Council has also filed a lawsuit.

EPA has received over 400,000 comments that it will consider before approving the expansion of Enlist Duo to nine additional states.

While public outcry has been strong, it is likely that the EPA will approve the herbicide's expansion. Corn and soybeans are the two most widely produced crops across the nation, and the agribusiness lobby is a strong voice in Washington. Moreover, the EPA has already imposed regulations on spraying to minimize wind drift, a primary concern of environmental groups. Strong economic motivation and a sufficiently placated environmental lobby may be enough for the EPA to check the box on approving the nine states up for consideration.

Many farmers have voiced the need for stronger herbicides to combat glyphosate-resistant weeds that decrease yields and increase input costs. Other farmers remain staunchly opposed to such measures, out of concern for the quality of the crop yield and the environmental repercussions of their choices.

Regardless of the outcome, the debate that has ensued around this topic highlights a major rift that has occurred in domestic agriculture between farmers who support increased technological improvement (i.e. chemical application) and those who do not. If the pattern persists, production will become increasingly dichotomized and farmers who choose not to apply chemicals will be completely forced out of the market for agricultural chemicals. As corn and soybean are primarily commodity crops used in animal feed and expelled as oils for food processing, it is possible that a widening gap between large-scale and small-scale will the shift consumer food choices toward smaller-scale farms that do not apply chemicals. But with government intervention altering market forces to be in favor of large-scale production, the future of agricultural production practices remain uncertain.