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Dow Chemical Readies for a New Era of Superweeds

By Rich Duprey – Jan 12, 2014 at 1:15PM

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We're going to get them anyway, the thinking goes, so we may as deregulate their causation now.

Because of the overuse of Monsanto's (MON) Roundup weedkiller, farmers have created "superweeds" that resist the best efforts of the herbicide to eradicate them. So rather than address the problem at the source, the USDA is poised to compound it by approving new seeds that are resistant to a different weedkiller manufactured by Dow Chemical (DOW), meaning it won't be long before we have to up the ante once more.


Dow AgroSciences makes Enlist Weed Control System, the third leading herbicide, but whose constituent component -- 2,4-D -- is perhaps also best known as one half of the deadly Vietnam War-era herbicide Agent Orange. Both Monsanto and Dow were the two primary government contractors that manufactured the deadly defoliant, though scientists think its extreme health risks were due more to the dioxin found in its other component, 2,4,5-T.

Like the Roundup Ready seeds that Monsanto genetically modified to withstand an application of its herbicide, the Agriculture Department wants to deregulate corn and soybean seeds that have been genetically modified to resist 2,4-D. Although they acknowledge it will likely lead to the creation of new superweeds down the road, their logic is that because we're overusing the herbicide as it is -- farmers who grow genetically modified crops typically use 25% more herbicide than those who grow traditional seeds -- we'll get superweeds sooner or later anyway, so there's no need to regulate the seeds anymore.

While the EPA is separately investigating 2,4-D and will soon issue its own report on its use and the seeds' deregulation, Dow AgroSciences has petitioned the USDA to deregulate one corn and two soybean seed varieties that are resistant to 2,4-D and glyphosate, the generic form of Roundup. Last year Monsanto and Dow agreed to cross-license their weed-control technology, with Monsanto using Dow's Enlist herbicide-tolerant traits in field corn while the AgroSciences division would use Monsanto's Corn Rootworm III traits, a third-generation corn rootworm technology still under development. 

Yet the insects are developing immunity to the chemicals, too, creating new superbugs!  But that's good business for the likes of Syngenta (NYSE: SYT), FMC (FMC -2.80%), and American Vanguard (AVD 0.57%), the three leading pesticide manufacturers that account for three-quarters of all such chemicals sold in the United States. Trailing revenues of the trio were up more than 13% on average over the past year and 14% over the past three years, even as GMO crops and increased pesticide use are believed to have a leading role in colony collapse disorder and the destruction of honeybee populations.

Like someone caught in a revolving door, the industrial farming complex keeps going round and round developing new chemicals to kill off the weeds and insects that grew resistant to the last batch that was applied. Monsanto and BASF are also pushing for regulatory approval of other new genetically altered seeds -- soybeans and cotton -- that resist a new dicamba-based herbicide.

And though we're promised that these genetically modified seeds able to withstand the application of powerful herbicides and insecticides but still keep growing are safe for human consumption, it hardly seems a prescription for a healthy diet, let alone a sustainable future.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey and The Motley Fool have no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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