By Joel McNair, Belleville, Wisconsin For a few years now — basically since his retirement from Purdue University — plant pathologist Don Huber has been telling people that there are serious problems with glyphosate (Roundup).

To date most of the discussion has taken place within the world of soybeans. Based on two decades of his own research along with the findings of other scientists, Huber is certain that glyphosate is reducing the ability of the soybean plant to take up and utilize manganese, thus reducing yields. It is a charge roundly denied by Monsanto and many mainstream agronomists.

But there is much, much more to Huber’s story, including potential animal and human health implications that deserve further investigation, especially as the United States confronts the very real potential for health care Armageddon. USDA’s late-January approval of Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant (Roundup Ready) alfalfa — and the potential the genetics has to increase both glyphosate use and GMO contamination — makes this a good time to review what Huber is saying, and why the potential implications are so great. The information provided comes from Huber’s article, co-authored with fellow Purdue plant pathologist G.S. Johal, published in the October 2009 issue of the European Journal of Agronomy, plus his presentation at the recent GrassWorks Wisconsin Grazing Conference.

Glyphosate chelates (immobilizes) a tremendous number of soil minerals, reducing plant uptakes of some micronutrients by as much as 80%, Huber says. Calcium, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium, nickel, zinc — all are bound up by glyphosate. While it is rapidly immobilized in the soil because it binds with those nutrients, glyphosate can remain in plants and soils for a very long time — up to 22 years in clay soils, Huber contends.

“It’s not just put it on the soil and ‘poof!’, it’s gone. It’s there for a very long time,” Huber told the Wisconsin grazing audience.

Glyphosate is also a potent microbiocide (disinfectant) that kills soils organisms important to converting certain minerals to forms usable by the plant, and in controlling soil-borne diseases that limit nutrient uptakes. While weed scientists have long said this is not a problem due to the its rapid immobilization, Huber contends that phosphorus applications and substances exuded by plant roots can free this locked-up glyphosate to damage plants long after its application. He says glyphosate leads to a nearly tenfold reduction in the soil organisms that make manganese available to plants, while increasing the organisms that make it less available by a factor of at least ten.

At the same time, Huber says there is evidence that the weed killer is producing “super pathogens” — mainly soil fungi such as Fusarium, Pythium and Phytophthora — that are causing problems in a variety of agricultural crops.

Bad as all of that may be, what glyphosate and the Roundup Ready gene does in and to the plant is even worse. Huber says glyphosate inhibits nitrogen fixation in legumes, damages roots, and reduces the ability of plants to utilize the reduced number of nutrients that the nodules and root tips are able to take in to the plant. Lignin production is reduced, thus making the plant more susceptible to disease. Photosynthesis is compromised, as is drought tolerance due to inefficient utilization of water, Huber asserts. He says the Roundup Ready gene itself is no bargain either, leading to drought stress, reduced N fixation and compromised nutrient uptake.

And the plants appear to have fewer nutrients. For example, at the Wisconsin conference Huber presented trial results showing nutrient declines in Roundup Ready alfalfa that had been treated with glyphosate the previous year. Compared to average levels, the declines for GMO alfalfa were: nitrogen 13%; phosphorus 15%; potassium 46%; calcium 17%; magnesium 26%; sulfur 52%; boron 18%; copper 20%; iron 49%; manganese 31% and zinc 18%. Gaze in wonder upon what USDA has just anointed.

This obviously worries Huber. “When you take one micronutrient out, there’s a domino effect. It makes all of them less efficient,” he told the Wisconsin grazing conference audience.
Calcium is important to bone formation, and iron is needed in blood. Manganese and zinc are required for proper liver and kidney function, while the brain needs copper and magnesium. Are the current epidemics of dementia and obesity being fueled at least partly by mineral imbalances in the food we eat and the water we drink?

And here is the very scariest part. In a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack prior to USDA’s RR alfalfa decision, Huber said that a team of scientists has discovered a tiny pathogen in RR soybeans and corn “that appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings.” He said that for an infectious agent to promote disease in both animals and plants “is very rare” and, while the work is preliminary, “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.” He said the pathogen may explain increasing rates of animal infertility and spontaneous abortions.

Vilsack, of course, ignored the warning. Most of what Huber says is disputed in the mainstream agricultural world, which is largely prohibited from doing the properly controlled experiments that might provide further verification to these charges. And of course, most of the research clout is on Monsanto’s side.

Yet there is enough evidence to merit concern. We graziers have known for at least two decades that it is very difficult to get grasses established in fields previously planted to row crops and sprayed with Roundup. None of us actually believed the stuff just went away, especially after many years of heavy use. For more than a decade we have had anecdotal evidence from farmers that their livestock don’t seem to perform as well on GMO grains. We now have studies indicating that modern foods are not as nutrient-dense as those of yore, and that organic foods grown without herbicides retain most of that density.

And we have evidence, both anecdotal and confirmed, that human health problems ranging from reduced sperm counts and diseases of the womb, to dementia and other diseases of late middle and old age, are on the rise in the United States. Is it the food? Is the problem at a broader environmental level in which food is just a part of what’s making us sick?

None of us has an certain answer to this, which is one reason why a few of the university people at Huber’s Wisconsin talk were at least somewhat dismissive. While it is widely understood that glyphosate locks up minerals in hard water, much of the rest of his message has not been proven to the mainstream. Any negative connotations for animal and, especially, human health are far beyond the realm of sound science, according to the scientists.

Still, one extension person who listened to Huber said it is entirely possible that he is on the mark. The history of innovation is rife with examples of the dark sides of a technology not being revealed until many years after its introduction. Whether it was emphysema from living in an Industrial Revolution factory town, or cancer from a toxic insecticide, we have almost always introduced first, and suffered the consequences later.

Someday, after the research is funded and the results published, we will have a better understanding of the consequences of GMOs. What’s particularly dangerous in regard to this particular technology is that we are changing organisms at the molecular level. How are we going to stuff this genie back into the bottle.

Coming back around to health care … wouldn’t it be interesting if instead of treating symptoms (largely cost and availability), we started going after the root cause of the disease? Almost everyone with eyes and the ability to think knows that something is going on here that has yet to be fully explained. And anyone who is honest about the situation understands that we will not reach a viable health care solution until that something (or perhaps somethings) are discovered and addressed.

Of course there is no money in such, which brings us to what John Ikerd said at the Wisconsin conference. Ikerd, another retired land grant guy (University of Missouri agricultural economics), has for years been urging a move away from our current agricultural system with its focus on short-term profitability, and toward a “sustainable capitalism” that includes social and ecological goals in addition to dollar-and-cents economics.

Ikerd says our total focus on the bottom line in agriculture has created a “carefully oiled machine” that is incapable of functioning should some dirt get into the gears. “Take away government supports, and (the big operations) will collapse,” he warns.

Ikerd believes that change is afoot, and that efforts to address our looming health care disaster will be the impetus for that change. He says awareness of the potential impact of industrial food upon human health is growing exponentially, with the market for “something different” now three times bigger than the ability of farmers to supply it. Ikerd projects that within the foreseeable future, our health care problem will be directly tied to food quality, and that the industrial system will be replaced with something better and more sustainable.

I hope he’s right.

In addition to publishing Graze, Joel McNair grazes dairy heifers and sheep on a small farm in southern Wisconsin.

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