Future historians may well look back and write about our time …. about how willing we are to sacrifice our children and jeopardize future generations with this massive experiment that is based on false promises and flawed science just to benefit the “bottom line of a commercial enterprise,” said Don Huber, referring to the North American “experiment” with glyphosate and genetically modified crops.
He was speaking at November’s Organic Connections conference in Regina.
He is an emeritus professor in plant pathology at Purdue University, a retired colonel who worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to reduce the impact of plant disease outbreaks in the United States and a member of the emerging diseases and pathogens committee of the American Phytopathological Society.
He has the usual markers of academic success: journal articles, books, awards and honours. In other words, he is a real scientist with the ability to read the scientific literature and weigh its impact, especially in the area of his expertise: plant diseases.
Huber began his presentation by describing glyphosate as a chelator, something that binds with a number of nutrients such as manganese, zinc, copper, and iron. Once a nutrient is chelated, it is unavailable to the plant, or for that matter, to most soil microbes.
He said it is through a change in the soil ecology, and by disabling the plant’s ability to resist disease, that the glyphosate has its effect.
“In agriculture, we’re farming an ecology,” he explained.
Glyphosate changes the soil ecology, killing many bacteria, and giving other bacteria a competitive advantage. It also makes plants highly susceptible to soil borne diseases. With increasing use of glyphosate, Huber said a number of plant pathogens are “emerging” or “re-emerging,” in-cluding a number of fusarium and root rot diseases.
At the same time that diseases are increasing, glyphosate has a negative effect on a number of beneficial soil organisms, including those that fix nitrogen, mycorrhizae, plant growth promoting organisms and earthworms.
Huber’s allegations of the impact of glyphosate in soil sterility echo those of Elaine Ingham, a soil ecologist with the Rodale Institute.
In insect and microbial communities, ecologists generally suggest that epidemics can be avoided by a balanced ecology. Beneficial organisms tend to overwhelm pathogenic organisms in a healthy system. This is why some suggest it is useful to eat yogurt after a round of antibiotics, and that antibiotic body products are probably not a good idea.
Local evidence is supportive of this idea. Myriam Fernandez, a plant disease specialist with Agriculture Canada, found that fusarium in organic systems tended to be dominated by saprophytic species (not disease causing) whereas pathogenic fusarium (causing disease) were more abundant in other systems where GM crops and glyphosate were commonly used.
“There is nothing substantially equivalent to gene insertion in nature,” Huber said.
He said he worries about the possibility of epigenetic effects that disrupt the normal control systems of the genes in the plant.
He said the GM crops had lower water use efficiency and less tolerance to lodging, tend to be nutrient deficient, have increased bud and fruit abortion and be predisposed to infectious diseases and insect damage. These he characterized as epigenetic effects.
Huber feels the application of phosphorus fertilizers could release the glyphosate in the soil so that it becomes active once again, damaging crop yields.
If all these problems are in fact linked to glyphosate and Roundup Ready crops, why are we not hearing of widespread crop failure? Introduction of GM crops into India is said by some to have delivered these effects.
Perhaps in North America these effects are overwhelmed by increased fungicide and insecticide use?
In many places on the Prairies, it would be hard to separate that from the effect of too much rain at the wrong time. As in any ecological disturbance, many factors are bound to be involved.
Huber suggested that Roundup Ready crops, treated with glyphosate, had higher levels of mycotoxins and lower nutrient levels than conventional crops. When consumed, the GM crops were more likely to cause disease, infertility, birth defects, cancer and allergic reactions than conventional crops.
Huber claimed that consumption of food or feed that was genetically modified could bring the altered genes in contact with the microbes in the guts of the livestock or people who ate them.
He felt this increased diseases such as celiac disease, allergies, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, gluten intolerance, irritable bowel disease, miscarriage, obesity and sudden infant death syndrome.
Much of the data Huber showed here seemed correlational: the diseases and the use of glyphosate increased in a similar pattern over time.
This isn’t proof that the diseases are caused by the glyphosate, but it suggests a pattern to be investigated.
He feels safety evaluations have been inadequate, suggesting that research was “substandard and extremely misleading interpretation of results” or worse.
Because of difficulties for independent researchers to examine the licensing agreements for GM products, third party opinions are hard to come by.
The allegations that Huber has compiled are incredibly damning of GM products and the inherent increase in glyphosate that goes with the Roundup Ready products. Those people who have confidence in the wisdom of our governing and regulating bodies will find these stories hard to believe. Some will suggest that science has shown these technologies to be safe. That would be misinterpreting the science.
Unfortunately, science cannot prove a technology is safe. It can only fail to observe a problem under the conditions of the test. Perhaps scientists fail to observe a problem because none exists.
If even a small part of what he suggests is true, we would be well advised to reconsider the policy of treating GMOs as “substantially equivalent” to non-GM products and instead, investigate the technology further.
In the meantime, some of us may wish to avoid products using this technology. Some may claim this is fear mongering. If this is, in the end, a subject upon which we must agree to disagree, labelling of GM products would at least give us the ability to disagree in a meaningful way.
Brenda Frick, Ph.D., P.Ag. is an extension agrologist and researcher in organic agriculture. She welcomes your comments at 306-260-0663 or email [email protected]