Despite USDA approval, Dow's new GMO corn and soybeans face hurdles

(Reuters) - U.S. approval of Dow AgroSciences’ new genetically-modified corn and soybeans takes the agricultural giant a step closer to its “most important” product launch ever, but a series of hurdles remain, the company said on Thursday.

Dow AgroSciences, Vice President of Crops Global Business Unit, Tim Hassinger speaks during the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit in Chicago March 16, 2011. REUTERS/John Gress

“We sure are aware of the concerns that have been expressed,” said Dow AgroSciences President Tim Hassinger in an interview.

“At the same time, we’ve been really pleased with how the farm community and the broader agricultural community have come forward in support,” he said.

Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical Co, has spent nearly five years seeking U.S. regulatory approval for the new herbicide product and new herbicide-tolerant crops that together Dow calls the “Enlist Weed Control System,” which Dow projects has a $1 billion value for the company. The company hopes Enlist can be on the market in time for the 2015 U.S. planting season.

“This regulatory process on Enlist... has been a lot of work. This has been very thoroughly tested,” said Hassinger.

Farmers who plant Enlist crops can spray their fields with Enlist herbicide and kill weeds but not the crops. Dow, which had $7.1 billion in revenues in 2013, hopes Enlist will boost its share of the lucrative U.S. seed market, which now is dominated by Monsanto.

But threats of lawsuits by food safety and environmental groups who want to block Enlist could delay Dow’s hopes to have farmers planting the new crops next spring. Critics have inundated regulators with predictions that Enlist herbicide, made with 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, (2-4D), will increase already severe weed resistance problems on farms and create safety issues for consumers.

“We will litigate,” said Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety. The non-profit group has a history of winning court orders that have delayed other genetically modified crops, including GMO sugar beets, canola and alfalfa.

Another potential hurdle is Dow’s lack of Chinese import approval for Enlist. China has recently been rejecting shipments of U.S. corn because of concerns that it contains a GMO corn developed by Syngenta AG that has U.S. approval but not Chinese approval.

Dow says it has not determined if it will wait for Chinese approval before selling Enlist in the United States. Hassinger said Thursday the company was “right in the middle of the process” in its quest for Chinese import approval of Enlist. That process generally takes two years, he said.

Part of the process requires Dow to ship its GMO seeds to China for testing before they can gain approval, he said.

And though the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted approval of Enlist crops on Wednesday, the company still needs approval from the Environmental Protection Agency for Enlist herbicide.

Hassinger said until the EPA announces its decision, the company will not discuss detailed plans for commercialization.

Dow already has approvals in Canada and is seeking approval in Brazil and Argentina.