Emeritus professor from Purdue University and former U.S. army bioweapons expert points to growing evidence of potential harm from genetic engineering and herbicide “abuse”
Don Huber may not be a big fan of organic agriculture, but he’s become a hero among organic farmers with his contention that glyphosate is less benign than its promoters crack it up to be.
Huber an emeritus professor of Plant Pathology from Purdue University, isn’t backing down, even though some dismiss him as a crank who lacks peer-reviewed evidence to back up his claims.
The retired U.S. army colonel and bioweapons expert who has written 115 journal articles, co-authored textbooks, and spent 50 years studying soil-borne disease and microbial ecology, now travels the world and can be seen in YouTube videos presenting research that he believes shows genetic engineering is “a massive experiment based on flawed science and failed promises.”
“It’s a total betrayal of the public trust. I don’t know how else to describe it,” said Huber, following a presentation at the recent Organic Connections conference here.
Huber, who co-ordinates a committee of the American Phytopathological Society, caused a stir last spring when he warned the USDA that a previously unknown pathogen linked to genetically modified corn and soybeans threatened exports.
“We’re hanging by a thread, if we want to maintain markets,” he said.
He told the Organic Connections conference glyphosate should be subjected to more independent research into its side-effects — a statement that met with thunderous applause in a hall filled with organic farmers and marketers.
He pegs glyphosate as the hidden cause behind increased virulence of crop pathogens such as fusarium head blight and the growing incidence of previously unheard of diseases in livestock and humans.
Although many organic practices “don’t make a lot of sense” to him scientifically, he lauded the organic community’s commitment, tenacity, and vision. “You’ve got the light at the end of the tunnel. I encourage you to promote it all you can,” said Huber.
First patented by the Stauffer chemical company in 1964 for descaling boilers, glyphosate was later patented by Monsanto in 1970 for use as a broad-spectrum herbicide.
Its introduction as a pre-season burn-down is credited with vastly reducing the amount of tillage for annual crop farmers. In the 1990s, genetically modified crops set the stage for near universal adoption, and a recent report predicted that global production of glyphosate by 2017 would hit 1.35 million tonnes.
Huber argues that the chemical’s true mode of action has been ignored since experiments in the early 1980s showed that it killed weeds via pathogenic action, which he compares to a “bad case of AIDS,” not a direct phytotoxic effect.
More than three decades of widespread use have led to an emerging agronomic “train wreck,” with resistant weeds up tenfold and a fourfold increase in fungicide use, he said.
“We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” said Huber. “It’s going to take a major calamity — and it’s coming.”
Repeated applications of the herbicide, which he describes as a “powerful antibiotic,” have disrupted the delicate balance of soil ecology that previously held soil pathogens in check. It also ties up essential minerals such as manganese in the soil and plant tissues.
Those tied-up nutrients suppress the immune systems of both plants and animals, he says. Low-level presence of glyphosate residues is suspected to cause disease in livestock by killing off beneficial intestinal microflora and allowing harmful microbes to multiply unchecked.
He said abuse of glyphosate through overuse has led not only to a proliferation of resistant weeds, but also to a re-emergence of dozens of formerly insignificant crop pathogens such as fusarium head blight, take-all, Goss’s Wilt, as well as mycotoxins in grain and diminished survivability in the soil of rhizobia-based legume inoculants.
Glyphosate’s alleged toxic effect on human gut flora has reduced the ability of the immune system to fend off salmonella and E. coli. Residues in food and feed may be a possible cause for the uptrend in outbreaks of illness and massive recalls of tainted meat and eggs, he added.
Citing soaring rates of allergies, celiac, autism, inflammatory bowel disease, and Alzheimer’s, Huber predicted that the effect on human health from glyphosate and genetically modified crops will one day result in repercussions many times than the fallout from the tobacco lawsuits.
Monsanto Canada spokesperson Trish Jordan said that although Huber’s credentials are impressive, he has a long history of making “sensational claims” that have never been reliably proven. She said his presentation at a conference devoted to organic farming amounts to preaching to the choir about the alleged dangers of two products they don’t use.
“Groups who are ideologically opposed to biotechnology will often jump on unvalidated claims to further their agenda,” she said.
“That’s fine, but I think you also have to look at the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence that clearly underscores that these products are safe and they perform well for farmers.”
She added that the recent defeat of a California ballot initiative that would require labelling of GM products shows that consumers are comfortable with innovation in agriculture.
“We already have a labelling scheme. If you want to avoid biotech crops, shop organic,” she said.