Once A Component of Agent Orange, 2,4-D Herbicide Could Spark A Surge in Enlist Crops

Huey helicopters were used to disperse Agent Orange across forests and farms in over 6,500 missions in a nine year period of the Vietnam War. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The use of Agent Orange, one of the nine Rainbow Herbicides used to destroy forests and farmland during the Vietnam War, is one of the darkest chapters in American history. It wasn't the first time herbicidal warfare had been conducted, but it was the first time such tactics were carried out on an industrial scale. The chemical, supplied by Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) and Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW  ) , was a mixture of two herbicides: 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. The former was phased-out of field use more than 30 years ago due to toxicity concerns, while the latter has become the most widely used herbicide on the planet.  

The fact that 2,4-D is an important tool in modern agricultural may be a surprise to some, especially given the contentious history of Agent Orange. That may also make a recent recommendation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow Enlist corn and soybean varieties created by Dow AgroSciences, that are resistant to the herbicide, to be marketed in the United States. Considering that 60%-70% of processed foods contain ingredients produced from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, should you be concerned? 

Time to panic?
Not so fast. As stated above, the herbicide 2,4-D is not Agent Orange. Nor was it the component that made the most widely used Rainbow Herbicide highly toxic to humans. It was later discovered that the industrial process used to produce 2,4,5-T -- the other half of Agent Orange -- also produced highly carcinogenic compounds called dioxins.

So, to be clear, there is no link between 2,4-D and cancer. In fact, a 2007 review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that "the weight of the evidence does not support a conclusion that (2,4-D compounds) are likely human carcinogens." The chemical has been reviewed numerous times by the EPA, top-ranked environmental academic institutions such as Oregon State University, and other third-party organizations. What's the consensus opinion? The relatively mild herbicide poses no cause for concern.

Consumers should also consider that 2,4-D is already widely used not just in industrial agriculture, but also by everyday households. In fact, you've probably held a container of the herbicide by your side and may have even spilled some on your own hands. That's because the herbicide is the active ingredient in weed killers such as Scotts TurfBuilder. That's hardly a product that merits protests and widespread opposition.

Given the facts, consumers should know that the safety of food ingredients will not change if and when Enlist crop varieties are approved in the United States (they will be planted in Canada this year).   

Is there good news to the recommendation?
Actually, yes (sort of). The USDA believes that approving Enlist crops would lead to the adoption of less "aggressive tillage strategies", which release quite a bit of greenhouse gases and can cause water pollution and topsoil erosion, as food writer and author Nathanael Johnson of Grist pointed out.

As with any technology, too much tilling can be a bad thing. Image source: Ian Bailey

While the agency admitted that approval would result in "another two fold to six fold increase" in 2,4-D use by 2020, the eventual approval of Enlist crops will give American farmers another tool in managing the spread of resistant weeds -- a responsibility that, similar to managing pests, falls largely on their shoulders. Simply put, the ability to alternate between herbicides, such as 2,4-D from Dow and glyphosate from Monsanto, from one harvest to another will more effectively mitigate the emergence of resistant weeds when compared to a mono-herbicide approach.

The need for products such as Enlist corn and soybean varieties is also good news for shareholders, as they are expected to be a big product for Dow AgroSciences. The company has also developed a new formulation of herbicide called Enlist Duo that compliments the crop varieties and is under review by the EPA. Both products need approval before Enlist can be sold commercially. However, considering how well the Roundup Ready crops and Roundup herbicide pair performed for Monsanto and coupled with the widespread use of 2,4-D already, Enlist has the potential to be a tremendous growth catalyst for Dow. Investors may want to taper their expectations, since Dow AgroSciences is just a piece of The Dow Chemical Company, but considering that the company is one of three that produces 2,4-D globally, there's certainly reason for optimism.

Foolish bottom line
Dow AgroSciences isn't out of the woods yet. The USDA and EPA both need to green-light Enlist products after evaluating the risks under the regulatory eye of each respective agency. Nonetheless, years of safe use of the herbicide 2,4-D in industrial agriculture and households should alleviate fears of consumers worried about the chemical's historic (and unfortunate) association with Agent Orange. While there will undoubtedly be -- and has already been -- fierce opposition to the new biotech crops by anti-GMO groups, investors should expect approval to be followed by a blockbuster launch of Enlist products.

Are biotech crops too controversial for your portfolio?
Complimentary Enlist crops and herbicides won't provide the same growth for Dow as Roundup pairings did for Monsanto, but it should still be a great growth product. However, you may not want to expose your portfolio to such a controversial, albeit critical, industry. Luckily, while opportunities to get wealthy from a single investment don't come around often, they do exist, and our chief technology officer believes he's found one. In this free report, Jeremy Phillips shares the single company that he believes could transform not only your portfolio, but your entire life. To learn the identity of this stock for free and see why Jeremy is putting more than $100,000 of his own money into it, all you have to do is click here now.

Read/Post Comments (20) | Recommend This Article (10)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 3:49 PM, funfundvierzig wrote:

    And luckily, tried and true 4, 2-D is not likely to blow up into a multi-$billion disaster for DOW shareholders like DuPont's tree-killing lawn herbicide Imprelis did for DD shareholders! ...funfun..

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 5:23 PM, klausmager wrote:

    we are still looking for an explanation for the tremendous increase in inflammatory diseases and cancers. Something is not right, and all these explanations sound good but leave a bad taste nonetheless. What IS causing this increase in disease?

    Food is health. As the link between nutrition and health / disease prevention becomes more and more clear, the use of these chemicals in agriculture is becoming increasingly problematic. On top of it, the promised improvements in output, productivity, reduction in the use of herbicides and pesticides, top soil preservation, have not materialized.

    While too much tiling may be bad, using the same crop over and over in the same soil is definitely a lot worse. Look at the stats on top soil erosion in the US.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 6:20 PM, NativePlants wrote:

    Commercial agriculture is heavily tied to the European Honey Bee. The latest 2013 research shows it may not be ONE chemical that is killing the bees, but the untested mix of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.

    Not a problem for wind-pollinated crops? Not so fast. In the last three years multiple studies in Canada, US, Mexico, and Brazil have shown that the native bees are heavily involved in the quantity of seed set for 'wind-pollinated' plants. They excluded native bees from test fields, and saw significant drops in production. In Brazil, 50% less seed set. In Canada, a 30% decrease, and in the US, in a corporate-funded study, 10% to 30% decrease without native bees.

    The Enlist GMO crops REQUIRE the use of herbicides to produce as much as other types of seed. Each commercial herbicide on the market has been found in honey and comb in amounts thought to be detrimental to bees. Additional 2,4-D in the environment is not good for agriculture.

    Commercial apiaries in the US sustain 30% losses each year in bee hives. Many have gone out of business. Vegetable, fruit and nut farmers are already feeling the pick of not enough bees to pollinate crops. Wake up, folks.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 7:16 PM, eyeknonothing wrote:

    Here, Here NativePlants I applaud you. All of these agri-bullies need to be put out of business period. Anyone who invests in companies like Monsatan has in my opinion, no scruples like their investment.

    The author has a very cavalier attitude about these GMO crops and the herbicides that must be used with them. The reason for Enlist and 2-4-d is because Round Up has failed miserably. I only pray Bio-Tech will also fail and fail hard.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 8:23 PM, Reallythisisit wrote:

    Considering the Author's background no wonder he was pro-Big M. Thanks to my father I'm in the mists of reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. No it may not spread cancer but it certainly affects the body in many other ways, as well as insects that help the environment and wildlife that feed off the insects. I would like to see the author of this article spill 2,4-D all over his hands and arms then let us see the affects over a day, week, months and years. It's like eating the chemical slowly over years as it accumulates in the fat tissues and body till it's a toxic overload and passed onto generations....can we say "Autism" and many other issues with origins yet to be explained.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 8:30 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:


    "can we say "Autism" and many other issues with origins yet to be explained."

    Autism has not been linked to the use of herbicides, but is theorized (by real science) to have a strong genetic and epigenetic correlation. One big reason for an "increase" in autism cases in the last decade or so is better (and sometimes false) diagnosis by medical professionals.


  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 8:34 PM, plaraway1964 wrote:

    whats wrong with these people they are complaing about high health insurance is so why are they using pestacide so how do I stop this.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 8:47 PM, AhhmClem wrote:

    That does it. I'm done with Motley tools.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 8:50 PM, toswald wrote:

    2-4-D has been used for years, this is not a new revelation. It's broad leaf killer. I'd be much more worried about RUR crops.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 10:02 PM, pegstermm wrote:

    my husband died from exposure to Agent Orange when he was in Viet Nam. it caused him lung cancer and he was dead within 6 months of being diagnosed. dioxin is poison. and it will kill you

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 10:38 PM, DevonShire123 wrote:

    Step 1 to population reduction: poison the People's food. Step 2: get the fake Media propagandist shills like the Motley FOOL to tell you it's OK to eat. Enjoy your cancer, folks.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 8:37 AM, Timm123 wrote:

    This is why I eat organic food whenever I can. All of these G.M.O.s and pesticides don't make sense to me. Sure maybe you get larger yields per acre, but at to great a cost. This style of farming is not sustainable, just like fossil fuels.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 9:11 AM, Coryadams1 wrote:

    The headline on this article panders to fear mongering and is extremely mis-leading. Just to attract readers. I'm a Vietnam veteran who was exposed to agent orange, which has caused health problems for one of my daughters. So seeing this headline I was naturally concerned about my grand childrens' health. Shame on Motley Fool for causing concern among those od us who still deal with the effects of agent orange.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 10:52 AM, james008 wrote:

    I have been living in nerve pain for over 30 years because of my service in Vietnam in 68-69. I sincerely hope I am here when Monsanto disappears from the face of this earth and all people associated with them are in prison. They have destroyed the Earth enough. May these monsters rot for eternity in HELL.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 11:24 AM, whoknew wrote:

    I distinctly remember reading somewhere that people with diabetes have a higher concentration of dioxin in their bodies than people without diabetes... And if I remember correctly, my father-in-laws' family recieved compensation from the US government because he loaded cannisters of Agent Orangee in the military in Viet Nam, and died at 58 ys old of Lymphoma related to exposure to Agent Orange according to the military... So maybe we need to re-think the use of these chemicals....

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 11:43 AM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:


    The herbicide 2,4-D was not the ingredient in Agent Orange that contained dioxins. The half that did -- 2,4,5-T -- is no longer in use. That's a pretty big point in the article, as is the fact that 2,4-D is the most widely used herbicide in the world already.


  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 12:00 PM, DanielG wrote:

    So to anyone so against GMO and herbicides / pesticides and other modern agricultural practices.. Please provide a list of the 4 - 5 billion humans that will be killed (since we cannot possibly provide enough organic food for everybody currently on the planet.)

    Or alternately, please tell me which continent is going to be completely bulldozed to make way for farmland?

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 1:15 PM, 1whatever wrote:

    Agent Orange was used in South Texas, both in the military grade, 12 lb. T and the industrial/commercial grade, 7 lb. T. The 7 and 12 names were pounds per gallon. Three eighteen wheeler loads were distibuted to the brush country in South Texas and then flown on by a crop duster, from Tilden to Cotulla and south to Freer and Hebronville. I know because I drove one of the trucks from San Antonio where it was picked up and delivered to its destination and then worked as an airplane loader for the crop duster. This was done between the spring of 1971 and the spring of 1972. Today, I am a healthy 64 years young, maybe a bit pickled, but alive with no issues.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 2:41 PM, DanB wrote:

    How do you square the inflammatory headline on Yahoo with the content of the article? The Yahoo link to the article is entitled "Agent Orange Herbicide Coming to Your Child's School Lunch Soon" and yet the article itself states, correctly, that "the herbicide 2,4-D is not Agent Orange." This is terrible journalism.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 10:49 AM, Farmhound wrote:

    Yawn Let me know when there is a storyhere.

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Maxx Chatsko

Maxx has been a contributor to since 2013. He's currently a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University merging synthetic biology with materials science & engineering. His primary coverage for TMF includes renewable energy, renewable fuels, and synthetic biology. Follow him on Twitter to keep pace with developments with engineering biology.

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