Ag groups seek to quell negative Roundup claims | The Daily Republic | Mitchell, South Dakota
Agriculture technology firms and South Dakota producers are refuting claims by a Purdue scientist that Roundup Ready technology could be responsible for a microscopic pathogen “that appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals and probably human beings.”
The bio-warning first became news in mid-January when Don Huber, a retired Army colonel and emeritus professor at Purdue University, wrote to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack protesting the pending deregulation of genetically engineered alfalfa, warning that “such approval could be a calamity.”
The “micro-fungus” pathogen, Huber wrote, “is widespread, very serious and is in much higher concentrations in Roundup Ready soybeans and corn — suggesting a link with the Roundup Ready gene or more likely the presence of Roundup.” The pathogen, wrote Huber, is implicated in cases of plant diseases, animal infertility and spontaneous abortions.
Huber asked Vilsack for an “immediate moratorium on the deregulation of Roundup Ready crops until the causal/predisposing relationship with glyphosate and/or Roundup Ready plants can be ruled out as a threat to crop and animal production and human health.”
The USDA did not heed the warning and has since deregulated genetically engineered alfalfa, as well as genetically engineered corn that will be used for ethanol.
Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide that is the main component of Roundup, a trademark of the Monsanto Corp., which is used throughout the Midwest to keep newly planted fields weed-free. It is used in conjunction with the planting of genetically engineered, glyphosate-resistant seeds, a technology commonly referred to as “Roundup Ready.” The ag technology has been widely applauded for helping to produce massive harvests.
Huber’s claims have been lauded by environmental groups and generally rejected by scientists.
Recently appointed South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Walt Bones took no side on the issue.
“We don’t have the ‘science’ to refute or support Dr. Huber’s claims at this time,” wrote Bones in an e-mail response to The Daily Republic. The quotation marks are his.
“As far as an official statement from the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, I would say that our producers need to make informed decisions on the products they use. We support decisions based on science — that is, information that has passed all the official channels.”
Monsanto panned Huber’s position in a Feb. 22 statement.
“No data was provided nor cited, and no collaborators were identified,” it read. It also said the coordinator of the USDA’s National Plant Disease Recovery system “was unfamiliar with information or research about the alleged pathogen” and hadn’t been contacted by Huber.
Huber did not return calls or answer e-mails from The Daily Republic on the matter.
Peter Goldsbrough, head of Purdue’s Botany and Plant Pathology department, said in a telephone interview that his department has been fielding “an increasing number of inquiries” about Huber’s claims. Huber is officially retired and is no longer involved in daily research at Purdue, Goldbrough said.
“There has been no evidence presented to the scientific community about this purported organism,” Goldsbrough said, “so it’s very difficult to really make any useful comment on that new organism when you don’t know what it might be or how it was identified.”
Goldsborough said he is unaware of any professional colleague with knowledge of a submicroscopic fungal organism of the type Huber warned of. If the claims are indeed true, he said, “there will be a lot of research opportunities in the future to study this new pathogen — if and when it’s identified.”
On Feb. 24, Purdue published a paper addressing several of Huber’s claims.
The paper, “Glyphosate’s Impact on Field Crop Production and Disease Development,” is not a direct response to Huber’s claims in his warning letter to Secretary Vilsack about a threatening new organism, Goldsbrough said, but it does address some of his concerns.
The publication said research supports claims that plants sprayed with herbicides like glyphosate “can make plants more susceptible to disease,” as well as some fungi, but “plant pathologists have not observed a widespread increase in susceptibility to plant disease in glyphosate-resistant corn and soybeans.”
The publication also states that “very few (fungal) pathogens infect both plants and animals.” It did not specifically address Huber’s claims of a dangerous new micro-fungal organism.
Goldsbrough said, however, that the incidence of Roundup-resistant weeds is well documented and is a significant problem when growers use a single herbicide repeatedly over consecutive years. The problem is akin to the development of drug-resistant diseases caused by people using antibiotics improperly.
Secretary Bones, however, made it clear in a telephone interview that he has some personal reservations about Huber’s claims.
He said he heard and questioned Huber in person “about a year ago” when Huber spoke in Sioux Falls about a European court decision that was unfavorable to the use of glyphosate. Huber could not give him the name of the actual case when he requested that information, Bones recalled.
“He did not have this study in hand, so when I hear his name mentioned again I have got to wonder what scientific basis he has behind this stuff and where’s he’s getting the information.
“He’s got some credentials behind him, I understand that, but when I directly asked him at that meeting he couldn’t come up with that lawsuit he was stirring everyone up about.”
Bones said he and his brothers operate a family farm in Turner County where they raise crops and cattle on land treated with glyphosate. They’ve never had a problem with the no-till technology, he said.
“We’re also part owners of a dairy, where we’ve used Roundup Ready corn cut from silage. Our conception rates and breeding have never been better,” Bones said.
A Monsanto press release said that “independent field studies and lab tests by multiple U.S. universities and by Monsanto prior to, and in response to, these allegations do not corroborate (Huber’s) claims.”
Secretary Vilsack has been panned by anti-genetic engineering groups for his recent decisions to deregulate genetically engineered alfalfa and corn.
A concern expressed by environmentalists was that the failure to maintain buffer zones around alfalfa crops would result in cross-pollination that could contaminate normal or organically grown crops with pollens from genetically engineered crops. Some critics have derisively dubbed the genetically engineered crops “Frankenfoods.”
There’s also some truth to another claim that weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to glyphosate and that such resistance could spawn a new generation of tough-to-eradicate “superweeds.”
But Bones said the characterization that Vilsack caved to pressure from ag technology corporations is unfair.
“The secretary had two options,” Bones said. “He could have maintained the buffer zones or he could have regulated alfalfa. He chose to deregulate.”
The amount of effort made to understand the genetically engineered situation was unprecedented, he said. New technologies typically take up to two years to clear the review process. This review took much longer.
“If five to seven years of review is the new standard, it’s really going to inhibit some of the new ag technologies coming down the line,” Bones said.
“South Dakota leads the nation in biotechnology adaptation — not just Roundup, but a lot of things — and our producers have been quick to capitalize on that technology. Our grain yields have been going up significantly, and I believe our pesticide use has been coming down. We’re not using a lot of the poisons we used to put in the ground.”
Bones recalled his father spreading a chemical powder on family land to kill rootworms. “We don’t have to do that any more,” he said.
“I’d much rather handle a bag of genetically modified seed than handle a bag (of chemicals) with a skull and crossbones on it.”