by Jill Richardson
April 27, 2011
It turns out that
Monsanto's Roundup herbicide might not be nearly as safe
as people have thought, but the media is staying mum on
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..
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,
significantly impact the health of plants, animals and probably
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 (see below insert), soon becoming an
January 16, 2011
A team of senior plant and animal scientists have
recently brought to my attention the discovery of an
electron microscopic pathogen that appears to
significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and
probably human beings. Based on a review of the data, it
is widespread, very serious, and is in much higher
concentrations in Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans and
corn-suggesting a link with the RR gene or more likely
the presence of Roundup. This organism appears NEW to
This is highly sensitive information that could result
in a collapse of US soy and corn export markets and
significant disruption of domestic food and feed
supplies. On the other hand, this new organism may
already be responsible for significant harm (see below).
My colleagues and I are therefore moving our
investigation forward with speed and discretion, and
seek assistance from the USDA and other entities to
identify the pathogen's source, prevalence,
implications, and remedies.
We are informing the USDA of our findings at this early
stage, specifically due to your pending decision
regarding approval of RR alfalfa. Naturally, if either
the RR gene or Roundup itself is a promoter or co-factor
of this pathogen, then such approval could be a
calamity. Based on the current evidence, the only
reasonable action at this time would be to delay
deregulation at least until sufficient data has
exonerated the RR system, if it does.
For the past 40 years, I have been a scientist in the
professional and military agencies that evaluate and
prepare for natural and manmade biological threats,
including germ warfare and disease outbreaks. Based on
this experience, I believe the threat we are facing from
this pathogen is unique and of a high risk status. In
layman's terms, it should be treated as an emergency.
A diverse set of researchers working on this problem
have contributed various pieces of the puzzle, which
together presents the following disturbing scenario:
This previously unknown organism is only visible
under an electron microscope (36,000X), with an
approximate size range equal to a medium size virus.
It is able to reproduce and appears to be a
micro-fungal-like organism. If so, it would be the
first such micro-fungus ever identified. There is
strong evidence that this infectious agent promotes
diseases of both plants and mammals, which is very
Location and Concentration
It is found in high concentrations in Roundup Ready
soybean meal and corn, distillers meal, fermentation
feed products, pig stomach contents, and pig and
Outbreaks of Plant Disease
The organism is prolific in plants infected with two
pervasive diseases that are driving down yields and
farmer income-sudden death syndrome (SDS) in soy,
and Goss' wilt in corn. The pathogen is also found
in the fungal causative agent of SDS (Fusarium
solani fsp glycines).
Animal Reproductive Failure
Laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of this
organism in a wide variety of livestock that have
experienced spontaneous abortions and infertility.
Preliminary results from ongoing research have also
been able to reproduce abortions in a clinical
The pathogen may explain the escalating frequency of
infertility and spontaneous abortions over the past
few years in US cattle, dairy, swine, and horse
operations. These include recent reports of
infertility rates in dairy heifers of over 20%, and
spontaneous abortions in cattle as high as 45%.
For example, 450 of 1,000 pregnant heifers fed
wheatlege experienced spontaneous abortions. Over
the same period, another 1,000 heifers from the same
herd that were raised on hay had no abortions. High
concentrations of the pathogen were confirmed on the
wheatlege, which likely had been under weed
management using glyphosate.
In summary, because of the high titer of this new animal
pathogen in Roundup Ready crops, and its association
with plant and animal diseases that are reaching
epidemic proportions, we request USDA's participation in
a multi-agency investigation, and an immediate
moratorium on the deregulation of RR crops until the
causal/predisposing relationship with glyphosate and/or
RR plants can be ruled out as a threat to crop and
animal production and human health.
It is urgent to examine whether the side-effects of
glyphosate use may have facilitated the growth of this
pathogen, or allowed it to cause greater harm to
weakened plant and animal hosts. It is well-documented
that glyphosate promotes soil pathogens and is already
implicated with the increase of more than 40 plant
diseases; it dismantles plant defenses by chelating
vital nutrients; and it reduces the bioavailability of
nutrients in feed, which in turn can cause animal
disorders. To properly evaluate these factors, we
request access to the relevant USDA data.
I have studied plant pathogens for more than 50 years.
We are now seeing an unprecedented trend of increasing
plant and animal diseases and disorders. This pathogen
may be instrumental to understanding and solving this
problem. It deserves immediate attention with
significant resources to avoid a general collapse of our
critical agricultural infrastructure.
COL (Ret.) Don M. Huber
Professor, Purdue University
APS Coordinator, USDA National Plant Disease Recovery
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
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,
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 (above insert) 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
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:
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."
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
"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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
The organism appears in high concentrations
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.
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.