#5 Plows and Pitchforks/ Entre arados - Health and GMO’s

Health and GMO’s.

June 2, 2013.

By Matt Bernau

            I could hear the angry whine of the airplane, and I smelled the chemical in the air before I could see it. Scouting irrigation pivots for weeds and Northern Corn Rootworm Beetles near Wellfleet, Nebraska can be a dangerous job. I ascended higher up the hill to get a better view; the crop duster had turned and was heading straight down the rows toward me. I pivoted and began to run, the stalks of corn grabbed at my ankles and sleeves as I tried to get out of the spray cloud containing Penncap-M. The very Penncap-M insecticide that I had recommended the farmer spray to save his crop from the adult rootworm beetles that were clipping his corn silks a week earlier.

I ran to my pickup and rolled up the windows, backing down the trail away from the pivot-head to escape as quickly as possible. The reason I knew I was in danger is written on the Penncap-M label:

“May be fatal if inhaled, harmful if swallowed. Harmful if absorbed
            through skin. Do not breathe vapors or spray mist. Avoid contact with eyes, skin,
            or clothing. Prolonged or frequently repeated skin contact may cause allergic
reaction  in some individuals. If you feel sick in any way, STOP work and get
help right away.”

The recommended personal protective equipment necessary for the exposure to and use of Penncap-M is also included on the label:

“mixers and loaders for ground application must wear: Coveralls over long
sleeved shirts and long sleeved pants; Chemical-resistant gloves; Chemical-
resistant footwear plus socks; Chemical resistant headwear if overhead exposure;
Chemical resistant apron if exposed to the concentrate; and, A respirator with an
organic-vapor removing cartridge with a pre-fitter approved for pesticides…”

            Well, the problem was that I had been wearing none of those things, just a t-shirt, jeans and leather boots, which by the way, are absorbent, so do not wear them when handling chemicals. That is why I fled that field in the summer of 2000. This incident occurred before the approval and widespread use of the genetically modified organism to combat the corn rootworm beetle.

            The Dow Chemical Company published a ‘Product Safety Assessment’ on their trademarked SmartStax transgene combination. “The protection against insects and herbicides is achieved by genetically modifying the corn to include eight genes that express proteins, making the corn plants resistant to the larval stages of multiple insect pests of corn and tolerant to certain herbicides” (http://msdssearch.dow.com/PublishedLiteratureDOWCOM/dh_03e3/0901b803803e393d.pdf?filepath=productsafety/pdfs/noreg/233-00616.pd..&fromPage=GetDoc).

            More importantly, there is no personal protective equipment required when a person is handling the TM SmartStax transgenic corn seeds. The only mention of a risk to handlers is that the seed corn may be externally treated with other fungicides or pesticides, and you may need to follow those product label recommendations.

The biotechnology presented as genetically modified corn that is resistant to the Northern Corn Rootworm beetle as well as other insect pests is a substitute for the old way of organophosphate insecticide applications. Airborne insecticides are used to treat not only just the predator insects of a particular plant, but the aerosols have affected other animals, in the surrounding landscape. Issues of drift and erosion have led to the environmental contamination of streams, waterways, and ground waters, the unintended consequences of chemical agriculture.

The United States Geological Survey has conducted studies focused on the presence of pesticide compounds in streams, other surface waters, groundwater, and sediment, as well as fish tissue (http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2006/3028/). They have found that organochlorine compounds can persist in the environment long after they are no longer being used.

            Recently, I have noticed a lot of conversation online and in print across the country regarding GMO’s and health. However, I have also noticed that not even the biotech firms who produce GMO’s talk about the ecological benefits of using transgenic technology to combat crop pests. Sadly, nobody has been discussing the improved health considerations of farm workers and rural families who no longer have to be victims of direct and indirect exposure to toxic clouds of insecticidal gasses. Some insecticide compounds were invented during WW1 and WW2 for used for the purposes of chemical warfare.

This is the story that needs to be told about genetically modified organisms, that they have less environmental health toxicity and are more effective at crop pest control than the old alternatives.

You may reach me at mmbernau@gmail.com & twitter @veritzombie.  


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