Dr. Don Huber did not seek fame when he quietly penned a confidential letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in January of this year, warning Vilsack of preliminary evidence of a microscopic organism that appears in high concentrations in genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and soybeans and “appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals and probably human beings.” Huber, a retired Purdue University professor of plant pathology and U.S. Army colonel, requested the USDA’s help in researching the matter and suggested Vilsack wait until the research was concluded before deregulating Roundup Ready alfalfa. But about a month after it was sent, the letter was leaked, soon becoming an internet phenomenon.
Huber was unavailable to respond to media inquiries in the weeks following the leak, and thus unable to defend himself when several colleagues from Purdue publicly claiming to refute his accusations about Monsanto’s widely used herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) and Roundup Ready crops. When his letter was finally acknowledged by the mainstream media, it was with titles like “Scientists Question Claims in Biotech Letter,” noting that the letter’s popularity on the internet “has raised concern among scientists that the public will believe his unsupported claim is true.”
Now, Huber has finally spoken out, both in a second letter, sent to “a wide number of individuals worldwide” to explain and back up his claims from his first letter, and in interviews. While his first letter described research that was not yet complete or published, his second letter cited much more evidence about glyphosate and genetically engineered crops based on studies that have already been published in peer-reviewed journals.
The basis of both letters and much of the research is the herbicide glyphosate. First commercialized in 1974, glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world and has been for some time. Glyphosate has long been considered a relatively benign product, because it was thought to break down quickly in the environment and harm little other than the weeds it was supposed to kill.
According to the National Pesticide Information Center, glyphosate prevents plants from making a certain enzyme. Without the enzyme, they are unable to make three essential amino acids, and thus, unable to survive. Once applied, glyphosate either binds to soil particles (and is thus immobilized so it can no longer harm plants) or microorganisms break it down into ammonium and carbon dioxide. Very little glyphosate runs off into waterways. For these reasons, glyphosate has been thought of as more or less harmless: you spray the weeds, they die, the glyphosate goes away, and nothing else in the environment is harmed.
But Huber says this is not true. First of all, he points out, evidence began to emerge in the 1980s that “what glyphosate does is, essentially, give a plant AIDS.” Just like AIDS, which cripples a human’s immune system, glyphosate makes plants unable to mount a defense against pathogens in the soil. Without its defense mechanisms functioning, the plants succumb to pathogens in the soil and die. Furthermore, glyphosate has an impact on microorganisms in the soil, helping some and hurting others. This is potentially problematic for farmers, as the last thing one would want is a buildup of pathogens in the soil where they grow crops.
The fate of glyphosate in the environment is also not as benign as once thought. It’s true that glyphosate either binds to soil or is broken down quickly by microbes. Glyphosate binds to any positively charged ion in the soil, with the consequence of making many nutrients (such as iron and manganese) less available to plants. Also, glyphosate stays in the soil bound to particles for a long time and can be released later by normal agricultural practices like phosphorus fertilization. “It’s not uncommon to find one to three pounds of glyphosate per acre in agricultural soils in the Midwest,” says Huber, noting that this represents one to three times the typical amount of glyphosate applied to a field in a year.
Huber says these facts about glyphosate are very well known scientifically but rarely cited. When asked why, he replied that it would be harder for a company to get glyphosate approved for widespread use if it were known that the product could increase the severity of diseases on normal crop plants as well as the weeds it was intended to kill. Here in the U.S., many academic journals are not even interested in publishing studies that suggest this about glyphosate; a large number of the studies Huber cites were published in the European Journal of Agronomy.
If Huber’s claims are true, then it follows that there must be problems with disease in crops where glyphosate is used. Huber’s second letter verifies this, saying, “we are experiencing a large number of problems in production agriculture in the U.S. that appear to be intensified and sometimes directly related to genetically engineered (GMO) crops, and/or the products they were engineered to tolerate — especially those related to glyphosate (the active chemical in Roundup® herbicide and generic versions of this herbicide).”
He continues, saying, “We have witnessed a deterioration in the plant health of corn, soybean, wheat and other crops recently with unexplained epidemics of sudden death syndrome of soybean (SDS), Goss’ wilt of corn, and take-all of small grain crops the last two years. At the same time, there has been an increasing frequency of previously unexplained animal (cattle, pig, horse, poultry) infertility and [miscarriages]. These situations are threatening the economic viability of both crop and animal producers.”
Some of the crops Huber named, corn and soy, are genetically engineered to survive being sprayed with glyphosate. Others, like wheat and barley, are not. In those cases, a farmer would apply glyphosate to kill weeds about a week before planting his or her crop, but would not spray the crop itself. In the case of corn, as Huber points out, most corn varieties in the U.S. are bred using conventional breeding techniques to resist the disease Goss’ wilt. However, recent preliminary research showed that when GE corn is sprayed with glyphosate, the corn becomes susceptible to Goss’ wilt. Huber says in his letter that “This disease was commonly observed in many Midwestern U.S. fields planted to [Roundup Ready] corn in 2009 and 2010, while adjacent non-GMO corn had very light to no infections.” In 2010, Goss’ wilt was a “major contributor” to an estimated one billion bushels of corn lost in the U.S. “in spite of generally good harvest conditions,” says Huber.
The subject of Huber’s initial letter is a newly identified organism that appears to be the cause of infertility and miscarriages in animals. Scientists have a process to verify whether an organism is the cause of a disease: they isolate the organism, culture it, and reintroduce it to the animal to verify that it reproduces the symptoms of the disease, and then re-isolate the organism from the animal’s tissue. This has already been completed for the organism in question. The organism appears in high concentrations in Roundup Ready crops. However, more research is needed to understand what this organism is and what its relationship is to glyphosate and/or Roundup Ready crops.
In order to secure the additional research needed, Huber wrote to Secretary Vilsack. Huber says he wrote his initial letter to Secretary Vilsack with the expectation that it would be forwarded to the appropriate agency within the USDA for follow-up, which it was. When the USDA contacted Huber for more information, he provided it, but he does not know how they have followed up on that information. The letter was “a private letter appealing for [the USDA’s] personnel and funding,” says Huber. Given recent problems with plant disease and livestock infertility and miscarriages, he says that “many producers can’t wait an additional three to 10 years for someone to find the funds and neutral environment” to complete the research on this organism.
If the link between the newly discovered organism and livestock infertility and miscarriages proves true, it will be a major story. But there is already a major story here: the lack of independent research on GMOs, the reluctance of U.S. journals to publish studies critical of glyphosate and GMOs, and the near total silence from the media on Huber’s leaked letter.Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..
The Professor’s request does not seem to have been answered, or if they are working on this, it’s about time they let us know what their results look like. Current indications are that we will seen net decrease in food production around the world, worse than it is at the moment. Inflicting what amounts to AIDS onto our food sources is close to suicidal.
Professor Huber acted as a concerned, informed citizen, as well as a respected member of academia. His request was for additional focus and assistance on a subject that is vital to every human being on the planet. Food.
Empirical evidence has been collected, it should be validated.
Any results the USDA has to date should be published.
Open discussion should be had in the scientific journals to ensure that all sides of this issue are represented.
Policy makers should become aware of the possible consequences and formulate reponse plans.
A reasonable question of risk to health and welfare of the people has been raised, and should be addressed by our representatives. The FUD generated against “…those interested in treating the issue as an objective problem in risk assessment and management are labeled ‘alarmists’, a particularly infantile smear considering what is at stake.” Vested interests are involved, our representatives need to represent us, not their campaign financiers.