After trucking across the high plains for five hours, and casting my eyes over perhaps 100,000 acres or more of winter’s still deathly gray industrial farmland, I came face to face with the newly famous Dr. Don M. Huber in the cave-dark meeting room of the Black Horse Inn just outside the American Heartland village of Creighton, Nebraska.
On the morning of March 24, along with about 80 farmers and Extension agents, I listened as Huber discoursed with erudition and eloquence upon industrial farming practices that may be impacting nearly every morsel of food produced on the planet, and that subsequently may also be having staggeringly serious health consequences for plants, animals, and human beings.
|Don M. Huber, Ph.D.|
Huber is emeritus soil scientist of Purdue University, and a retired U.S. Army Colonel who served as an intelligence analyst, for 41 years, active and reserves. In Nebraska, he stood ramrod straight for three hours with no notes and spoke with an astonishing depth and range of knowledge on crucial, controversial matters of soil science, genetic engineering, and the profound impact of the widely used herbicide glyphosate upon soil and plants, and ultimately upon the health of animals and human beings.
Dressed in a conservative dark suit and tie, Huber set the stage for his presentation by observing that he has been married for 52 years, and has 11 children, 36 grandchildren, and a great-grandchild on the way. He then began his formal talk framed by a PowerPoint slide bearing a Biblical quote: “All flesh is grass.” – Isaiah 4:6. With this he emphasized the foundational reality that the biotech grains we eat, as well as the biotech grains eaten by cows, hogs, and chickens, are grown in vast herbicide-treated fields.
For the domineering giants of industrial agriculture — multinational corporations, universities, and governments — Huber’s assertions about the impact of glyphosate, and the mounting scientific questions about GMO crops, may be as significant and disrupting as Martin Luther’s “heretical” act in 1517. That’s when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany to challenge the systemic problems in the almighty institutions of his era.
|Martin Luther nails his theses to the church door.|
Luther disputed the claim that spiritual forgiveness from sins could be legitimately sold for money. Huber and other researchers say they are accumulating evidence that — along with the 2010 report of the U.S. President’s Cancer panel which bluntly blames chemicals for the staggering prevalence of cancers — raises profoundly challenging questions about the chemical and genetic-engineering practices of industrial agriculture. The challenge, if it holds up, has implications not just for agricultural institutions, but also for the primary food chain serving the Earth’s population.
Not an altogether new controversy, the complex matters of industrial agriculture, genetic engineering and the far-flung use of herbicides has been ominously and exponentially accentuated in the last year by virtue of its ominous context: last summer’s epic oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, the nation-ripping 9.0 earthquake in Japan earlier this month, with its subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown which is contaminating the nation’s water and food chain, in combination with the statistical reality that on our planet of nearly seven billion people, over a billion human beings — one of every six of us — is hungry.
All of this was brought into prominent public focus — both sharp and fuzzy — in January of this year by the unlikely matter of alfalfa.
Challenges to the Web of Life
The seminar with Dr. Huber, sponsored by Knox County Extension and the Center for Rural Affairs, commenced on a somber note. The moderator announced that Terry Gompert, 66, a veteran Extension educator and respected advocate for sustainable agriculture, and a man who had played a key role in organizing the conference, had just suffered a massive heart attack. A moment of silence followed before Dr. Huber began his presentation. Mr. Gompert died on March 25, the day after the conference he organized.
Dr. Huber discusses food and safety concerns at the Black Horse Inn, Creighton, Nebraska. (Photo by S. McFadden )
At the conference, Huber’s talk was highly technical, yet he had easy command of voluminous technical detail. For many, it must have sounded like an alien language as he spun out the esoteric terms: zwitterion, desorbtion, translocation, rhizosphere, meristemic, speudomanads, microbiocidae, bradyrhizobium, shikimate, and more.
Huber spoke about a range of key factors involved in plant growth, including sunlight, water, temperature, genetics, and nutrients taken up from the soil. “Any change in any of these factors impacts all the factors,” he said. “No one element acts alone, but all are part of a system…When you change one thing,” he said, “everything else in the web of life changes in relationship.”
That brought him to the subject of glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide, most commonly recognized in the product named Roundup®. Because it is so widely used, Huber said, it is having a profound impact upon mega millions of farm acres around the world. More than 155 million acres of cropland were treated with glyphosate during the 2008 growing season, and even more by now. Subsequently, Huber said, this chemical is having a sweeping impact on the food chain.
He asserted that glyphosate compromises plant defense mechanisms and thereby increases their susceptibility to disease, that it reduces the availability and uptake of essential nutrients, that it increases the virulence of pathogens that attack plants, and that it ultimately reduces crop vigor and yield (Yield Drag).
Most dramatically, Huber reported on what he described as a newly discovered pathogen. While the pathogen is not new to the environment, Huber said, it is new to science. This pathogen apparently increases in soil treated with glyphosate, he said, and is then taken up by plants, later transmitted to animals via their feed, and onward to human beings by the plants and meat they consume. The pathogen is extraordinarily small. It can be observed only via an electron microscope operating at 38,000 power of magnification. It has yet to be phenotyped or named, though that work is almost complete and will be announced in a matter of weeks.
Huber warned that ignoring these emerging realities may have dire consequences for agriculture such as rendering soils infertile, crops non-productive, and plants less nutritious. It could also, and apparently already is, he said, compromising the health and well-being of animals and humans.
The Stratosphere of Controversy
What propelled Huber, glyphosate and biotech crops into the stratosphere of public attention earlier this year was a pending decision on alfalfa (hay) by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The “queen of forages,” alfalfa is the principal feedstock for the dairy industry. The USDA was being asked to approve unrestricted use of genetically engineered alfalfa seeds, which could result in as many as 20 million more acres of land being sprayed with up to 23 million more pounds of toxic herbicides each year.
Because alfalfa is pollinated by bees that fly and cross-pollinate between fields many miles apart, the biotech crop will inevitably contaminate natural and organic alfalfa varieties.
Dr. Huber wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking for a delay in making the decision, and for the resources to do further research. In his letter, Huber raised questions about the safety of glyphosate. Huber’s letter also warned of the new pathogen, apparently related to the use of glyphosate, which appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings. He said laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of the organism in pigs, cattle and other livestock fed these crops, and that they have experienced sterility, spontaneous abortions, and infertility.
“I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen is unique and of a high-risk status,” Huber wrote. “In layman’s terms, it should be treated as an emergency.” Vilsack set Huber’s letter aside for later consideration, and on January 27 he authorized the unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa. Immediately thereafter, the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the USDA, charging that the agency’s approval of genetically engineered alfalfa was unlawful.
While Huber’s letter of warning was not intended for public consumption, it was leaked and immediately went viral on the Internet. In a matter of days Huber became a lightning rod, attracting intense attention from both the scientific community, and the general public, which is understandably concerned about the genetically engineered food it has never wanted and — since GM food is unlabeled — never been able to identify. The prospect of a new and virulent pathogen sweeping through the food chain was profoundly unsettling
Meanwhile, researchers were deeply upset that they were not first notified by Huber of the new pathogen — as is customary — before the matter became public knowledge. They felt they had been blindsided. Huber says that his letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack was leaked, and thus its publication was not his doing.
Huber became the focus of tremendous pushback. His message of urgent concern and the need for delay until more research was completed was unwelcome in many corporate and university citadels, and was deemed heresy by some vested in the multi-billion dollar industry of GMO crops.
The biggest beef researchers have with Huber — who is well known in his field as a member of the American Phytopathological Society and as part of the USDA National Plant Disease Recovery System – is that he has not yet made data available for scientific scrutiny. Many researchers, including some at Purdue, say Huber’s data and hypotheses, when studied, are not likely to hold up to peer review, and that in general his allegations are exaggerated.
When contacted for comment on Huber’s concerns, Monsanto, maker of Roundup ® (glyphosate) and producer of Roundup Ready® seeds, sent a link to a host of professional criticisms of Huber’s work as well as to their official corporate statement: “Independent field studies and lab tests by multiple U.S. universities and by Monsanto prior to, and in response to, these allegations,” the statement reads in part, “do not corroborate his claims.”
Glyphosate is a particularly strong broad-spectrum toxin with the power to kill many kinds of plants that have been designated as weeds. As a chelator, or binder, glyphosate changes the physiology and thereby makes plants susceptible to plant pathogens. Roundup Ready® plants are tolerant of glyphosate because technology inserts a new gene. While the RR plants do not die after the toxic herbicide is sprayed over farm fields, the plants do suffer a reduced efficiency in some crucial regards, according to some researchers, changing the nutrient balance in plants. When that change occurs, all subsequent relationships — including the diet of livestock and humans — is changed.
The extensive use of glyphosate and the rapid, widespread use of GM crops resistant to it, have intensified the deficiencies of essential micronutrients, and some macronutrients. This is leading, Huber argues, to weaker and more disease-prone plants, animals, and people. In his presentation, he offered a list of about 40 diseases that, he says, tend to increase in farm fields where glyphosate is used. Those plant diseases include Sun Scald, Leaf Chlorosis, Tomato Wilt, Apple Canker, Barley Root Rot, Bean Root Rot, Wheat Take All, Wheat Head Scab, Wheat Glume, and Grape Black Goo.
Subsequently, he hypothesized, the decrease in nutrients and the increase in the new pathogen in food lead to empty calories, which likely explains increases in allergies, and chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
The list of diseases that Huber suspects may be affected by glyphosate and the new pathogen is, he said, increasing as growers and pathologists recognize the cause-effect relationship:
What Has Changed?
As if it were a mantra, during his three-hour talk Dr. Huber often raised a rhetorical question: What has changed? If all of these troubling conditions are on the rise for plants, animals and humans in recent years, then what has changed to bring it about?
The most apparent change, he answered, is that glyphosate and genetically engineered plants are out widely in the world. According to Huber, farm animals, including cattle, pigs, horses and chickens that are fed GM crops grown on glyphosate-treated fields have shown an alarming increase in sterility, spontaneous abortions, and stillbirths. By way of anecdotal evidence, he said he gets two to three communications a week from farmers and veterinarians about this troubling phenomenon. “We can no longer ignore the increase in livestock infertility, stillbirths, and spontaneous abortions over the last three to four years,” he said.
GMO feed grown on glyphosate treated fields tends to irritate the stomach of livestock, such that many farm animals are fed daily rations of bicarbonate of soda in an attempt to sooth their stomach lining. Huber showed a slide bearing images of dissected hog stomachs; one from a hog fed GMO feed and the other conventional feed. The GMO hog had a rudely inflamed mass of stomach and intestinal tissue.
A handout from Dr. Huber that was made available at the Nebraska seminar cited 117 peer-reviewed scientific studies that raise serious questions about the impact of glyphosate. These studies have reached critical mass, Huber said, and they could no longer be discounted or ignored. Yet, there are also a substantial number of studies stating that glyphosate and GMO crops are safe and ought to be the cause of no concern.
What Is this Stuff?
Glyphosate is the most used herbicide in the USA. Every year, 5 to 8 million pounds are used on lawns and yards, and another 85 to 90 million pounds are used in agriculture. It is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds, especially weeds known to compete with crops grown widely across the Midwest. Initially sold by Monsanto in the 1970s under the trade name Roundup®, its U.S. patent expired in 2000, and thus glyphosate is now marketed in the U.S. and worldwide in different solution strengths under various trade names. Because these products may contain other ingredients, they may have different effects.
Glyphosate inhibits a key enzyme that is involved in the synthesis of amino acids in the plant. Many fungi and bacteria also have this same pathway. Aromatic amino acids in plants are the building blocks for many of their defense compounds.
Some crops have been genetically engineered to be resistant to it (i.e., Roundup Ready®). Such crops allow farmers to use glyphosate as a post-emergence herbicide against both broadleaf and cereal weeds, but the development of similar resistance in some weed species is emerging as a costly problem.
Glyphosate kills plants by interfering with the synthesis of the amino acids which are used by the plant as building blocks in for growth and for defense against disease and insects. Plants that are genetically engineered to tolerate the glyphosate contain a gene that provides an alternative pathway for nutrients that is not blocked by the glyphosate herbicide. But this duplicate pathway requires energy from the plant that could be used for yield, thus many GMO crops experience Yield Drag – a reduction in yield.
Huber had several recommendations for growers, especially a much more judicious use of glyphosate, as small a dose as possible. He said farmers also need to provide supplementary nutrients to counteract its effects and thereby to restore plant resistance to toxins and diseases.
He mentioned that there are other herbicide products on the market, but they are more specific to particular weeds and degrade more swiftly, whereas glyphosate is broad spectrum and thus kills many types of weeds, and also endures for a longer span of time in the soil and plants.
“Slow down,” Huber said. “It takes time to restore soil biota if a field has been treated with glyphosate. We have 30 years of accumulated damage, so it may take some time to remediate all of this.”
“There are a lot of serious questions about the impacts of glyphosate that we need answers for in order to continue using this technology,” he continued. “I don’t believe we can ignore these questions any more if we want to ensure a safe, sustainable food supply and abundant crop production.”
In his presentation at the Black Horse Inn Huber was convincing in his demeanor, encyclopedic in his knowledge, precise and eloquent in his delivery. Late in the morning as he spoke of the fertility and yield issues, the complications for farmers, and the increased prevalence of disease, his eyes momentarily welled up with tears. Then as he concluded his talk he received a standing ovation from the assembly of about 80 Nebraska farmers and Extension staff.
Still, Huber’s personal integrity and his positive reception, at least at the Black Horse Inn, may be of small consequence in the face of a tsunami of criticism arising from the citadels of corporations and universities. None of that will be resolved until the data he and others have gathered passes peer review.
The primary realities in the GM and glyphosate debates are corporate avidity, scientific uncertainty, and overwhelming public disapproval. Many peer-reviewed articles suggest that biotech crops and foods are harmless; many suggest otherwise. The jury is still out. However, as Huber was arguing, the number of published articles showing that glyphosate and the biotech crops grown in its chemical soup cause harm to livestock is rising rapidly.
Studies showing the public has little taste for genetically engineered foods, and especially not for unlabeled and thus unidentifiable genetically engineered foods, remain convincing. According to reports from Food & Water Watch, 90% of Americans want GM foods labeled, and 91% say the FDA should not allow genetically modified pigs, chicken and cattle into the food supply. To date, the main parties keen about promoting unlabeled GM foods, and their herbicidal aides, are multinational corporations and their investors.
“Before we jump off the cliff,” Huber said, “we need to have more research done. It takes a lot to reverse the problems.” Many observers would argue, convincingly, that we have already jumped off the cliff.
Huber sought just $25,000 to do sequencing to establish the phenotype of the newly identified pathogen, and then to name it. But no government, university, or corporation would provide that relatively paltry amount of money. Finally, a private individual came forward and made the money available. Then the lab that was originally keen to do the phenotyping backed out. The issue had become a hot potato, and they did not want the controversy. Still, Huber persevered, and he said they should have the phenotype established, and then be able to name the pathogen, in a matter of weeks.
“Let me emphasize that all of this is not a calamity,” Huber said, surprisingly, near the end of his talk. “Agriculture is the most critical infrastructure for any society. American agriculture has undergone a revolution, and it will continue to progress.
“Still, I saw no reason to rush into the critical alfalfa decision and to thereby cause so many more acres to be treated with glyphosate,” he said. “Why take a chance until we get the answers? Research needs to be done…There is lots of new data that needs to be considered, lots of new studies that cannot be ignored.”
© 2011 – by Steven McFadden
Read more from Steven McFadden in The Call of the Land: An Agrarian Primer for the 21st Century and on his blog at http://www.thecalloftheland.com.