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Jan 3 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday it was leaning towards a long-awaited approval of Dow AgroSciences' genetically altered "Enlist" corn and soybeans that have been heavily criticized by groups who say they will harm the environment.
The Enlist seeds are designed to be used in combination with a new herbicide developed by Dow that combines the weed-killers 2,4-D, known for its use in the Agent Orange defoliant, and glyphosate.
Dow, a unit of Dow Chemical, says the crops and the herbicide combination - the "Enlist Weed Control System," will help combat an explosion of crop-choking weeds around the United States that have become resistant to glyphosate, the chief ingredient in the popular Roundup herbicide sold by Dow rival Monsanto Co.
Dow officials cheered the USDA announcement, which followed over two years of scrutiny of Enlist by the agency. They said Enlist corn and soybeans should be on the market by 2015 - roughly two years after the initial target launch date. Enlist cotton should follow them at some point in the future, they added.
"Enlist will be a tool to help address the significant weed control problems that farmers are facing today," the company said in a statement.
Critics reacted with alarm on Friday and reiterated warnings that approval of the new biotech crops will only increase the use of pesticides and thus increase weed resistance over the long term.
They say there are significant health risks associated with 2,4-D. It was one of the ingredients in Agent Orange, the Vietnam War defoliant blamed for numerous health problems suffered by soldiers and Vietnamese civilians during and after the war. Although the main health effects of Agent Orange were blamed on the other component of the mixture (2,4,5-T) and dioxin contamination, critics say 2,4-D has significant health risks of its own.
The Center for Food Safety, a chief critic of Enlist, said that 2,4-D and other herbicides of its class have been independently associated with deadly immune system cancers, Parkinson's disease, endocrine disruption, and reproductive problems.
"This is among the worst applications of biotechnology," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. "They will increase the use of toxic pesticides in industrial agriculture while providing absolutely no benefit to consumers."
Last May the USDA said it was extending its scrutiny of Enlist after receiving an onslaught of concerns from the public and biotech critics.
In its decision announced Friday, the USDA said it had completed a "Draft Environmental Impact Statement" (DEIS) for Enlist corn, and two types of Enlist soybeans and said its "preferred" option was approval of all three.
The USDA noted in its statement that its regulatory authority is limited and it primarily evaluates the risks a new biotech crop presents to other crops or plants.
The draft EIS will now be available for public review and USDA said it will hold a "virtual public meeting" to receive feedback from the public before it makes a final regulatory decision.
USDA's review comes at the same time that the Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the safety of Dow's Enlist 2,4-D herbicide. The EPA is expected to issue its proposed regulatory decision in the new few months.
As Dow pushes for approval of its new crop/herbicide combination, Monsanto, in conjunction with BASF, also is seeking regulatory approval for new genetically altered soybeans and cotton that resist a new dicamba-based herbicide.