Roundup, Part III: “Mankind’s Greatest Mistake”
I REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME I heard the name Don Huber, only because I recall so clearly the woman who was relating his story. I was in New York at a benefit gala for the Rodale Institute and it was my first time meeting Maria Rodale, the granddaughter of J.I. Rodale, the founder of the organic movement in the United States.
I was excited she knew of our work at SafeLawns. She, in turn, was eager to tell me about some new research coming out of Purdue University in Indiana that proved just how dangerous the weed killer known as Roundup really is.
“Roundup will prove to be mankind’s greatest mistake,” said one of Maria’s colleagues that evening. “Imagine if virtually the entire agricultural system in the United States is based on one product owned by one company. And imagine if that product will slowly but surely be proven to be a lethal poison. Just imagine that. It’s going to come true, you know.”
I hear a lot of that hyperbole in my travels. I’m probably guilty of delivering some of it, too. “Mankind’s greatest mistake” seemed far-fetched by any standards and I left New York only vaguely trying to remember the name of the researcher Maria had mentioned. Days passed. Then months. And now it’s been two years.
This week my email in-box is filled with fearful queries about what I know about “Roundup Ready” alfalfa and the fact that the USDA is all but certain to approve it for planting as soon as this spring. Some folks are practically begging us to get involved even as I tell them that, well, alfalfa is a bit far afield for us since it’s a forage crop. SafeLawns deals mostly with lawns and landscapes.
“I WAS SO EXCITED”
It doesn’t take more than 60 seconds of a Google search of “Roundup Ready” to find Don Huber’s name in the mix of the discussion about glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology at Purdue in West Lafayette, Huber is quintessentially an old-time big-ag guy. His B.S. and M.S. degrees were minted at the University of Idaho (1957, 1959), and his Ph-D was inked at Michigan State University (1963) well before anyone this side of Rachel Carson began to question anything about the Agricultural Revolution. He’s also an Army guy, a proud, proper and loyal graduate of the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College and Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
For more than 50 years now he has focused on the epidemiology and control of soilborne plant pathogens. You need an agricultural manual nearby just to translate the first few lines of his CV: ” . . . with emphasis on microbial ecology, cultural and biological controls, and physiology of hostparasite relationships. Research also includes nitrogen metabolism, micronutrient physiology, inhibition of nitrification, and nutrient-disease interactions.”
So when he tells you “I was initially so excited by the introduction of Roundup for our industry,” you believe him. Or at least I did earlier today when we engaged in a wide-ranging conversation about the product that he now believes has put the nation’s food supply in crisis.
Yes, he used the word “crisis,” as in: “I can’t understand why the government is ignoring the crisis caused by Roundup. If the evidence were so clear on any other product, action would have been taken long, long ago. The problems are epidemic in scale. New pathogens are popping up. New species are showing up that science can’t even yet explain. But they all trace back to the massive abuse of glyphosate.”
A GOOD PRODUCT GONE BAD
As a scientist, Huber can be careful to measure his words and opinions. He seemed inherently fond of Roundup, as if it were a rogue child that he still hoped could be reined in. When I asked him if he thought Roundup, under these current circumstances, ought to be banned outright, he was quick to say, “No.”
“Used the way it was intended, as a spot weed killer by properly trained applicators, Roundup was a fantastic weed killer for our industry,” he said. “But Roundup worked so well it made people lazy and greedy and now it’s just so pervasive that it’s everywhere.”
When the United States government began allowing genetically engineered grain crops beginning in 1996, the use of Roundup officially became abuse, according to the scientist. Using a gene gun, crops like corn and soybeans were made resistant to Roundup, which meant the desirable plants would live and the so-called weeds would die when the product was sprayed. After 1996, when use of Roundup increased exponentially, a useful weed-killing tool became a menace that Huber firmly believes has the capacity to render fields useless and to render farm animals sterile. And, he asks, “If we know the Roundup is making the cows, the pigs and the chickens sterile, and the product is causing spontaneous abortions in farm animals, what is it doing to us?”
The answer is almost too profound to ponder, yet it doesn’t take too long to realize that if Huber is right, Roundup could well have been mankind’s greatest mistake after all. And it doesn’t take long on Google, or on the phone with a scientist or three, to find out that Huber is, almost certainly, dead on.
“Roundup is a very serious poison,” said Andres Carrasco, the lead embryologist at the University of Buenos Aires Medical School in our Tuesday blog. Carrasco is currently investigating birth defects in Argentina that he believes are caused by Roundup.
Then there’s Gilles-Eric Seralini, a French scientist with a story similar to Huber’s in that he initially had a favorable opinion of Roundup.
“When I heard that some commercialized (genetically modified organisms) were released in order to reduce pesticide use I thought it was great and asked to see the files as I was working on the effects of pesticides on cancers,” he said in an on-line interview. “I asked for the files and I found it was very difficult to get them. When I eventually got the working documents I saw nothing had been done to look at the actual effect of the pesticides within the plant.”
His findings were identical to Huber’s.
“I began to work on Roundup and I discovered several things — doses of Roundup lower than those recommended for agricultural use were potentially toxic, and Roundup is considered less toxic to the ecosystem than other pesticides,” said Seralini. “Even small amounts could disturb human and rat pregnancies, mouse kidneys, rabbit sperm and other human tissues. The pesticide disrypted endocrine production, which is necessary for the creation of oestrogen, even in the male.”
In other words, this stuff that Americans use by the gallon — because they’re afraid of the dandelions my grandmother used to eat — really can make us sterile. Oh, and by the way, it can also cause cancer, liver and kidney failure, bone disease and so many other health issues all related, horrifically, to the food we eat. That’s why Europeans long ago took to calling American grain exports “Frankenfood.”
LOOK AT THE WHOLE PICTURE
Earlier today, prior to my call with Don Huber, I had spent the afternoon in Augusta, Maine, at a conference with our new Maine governor, a man hopelessly overmatched in the face of 600 or so environmentalists and citizens who are petrified by his campaign rhetoric “to never let environmental regulation stand in the way of good business.” He trotted out a well-worn cliche that must, by now, be taught on the first day of class for Big Chemical Ag 101.
“We want all of our environmental regulations to be based on sound science,” he said.
“We want all of our environmental regulations to be based on how we choose to interpret the data.”
As a soil scientist for longer than most of today’s agricultural industry chemists have been alive, Don Huber almost laughed aloud when he considered the way some of his youthful colleagues approach their job.
“They look at results on one page, when they need to be looking at the whole book,” he said. “In other words, what is the chain reaction that occurs. One thing affects another. You have to look at what Roundup does to the physical properties of the soil, to the biology of the soil, to the disease pathogens in the soil. All these things are affected negatively by Roundup. Then you have to look at what happens to the plant, inside the plant. We know, for example, that Roundup binds all sorts of micronutrients than don’t make it into the plant from the soil. That means we’re harvesting unhealthy plants and those plants are making it into the food supply.
“What happens next when beneficial nutrients don’t make it into the food supply? We get fat, obese in some cases, because we eat and we’re still hungry. We get diabetes. It’s all because of the food chain affected by Roundup.”
That led our conversation back to the ultimate reasons I called, which were Roundup Ready alfalfa and backyard use of Roundup by virtually every homeowner in suburbia. Huber used the same analogy on the latter matter.
“What are the cumulative effects?” he asked. “People only think about what they’re using at that moment. But what about how much Roundup they’re consuming in their food, too? When you look at the whole picture, it points to a very serious problem.”
END OF FARMING AS WE KNOW IT
Alfalfa is, by far, the most important forage crop in the Heartland. Its distinctive pelletized grains feed everything from horses and cows, to chickens, rabbits and even lawns as a fertilizer. A perennial grass, alfalfa is an easy crop to grow, too, since it competes aggressively against most weeds. When other grasses creep into the field, most farmers see that as a good thing since the grass and alfalfa in conjunction give the farm animals a more balanced diet.
“It’s beyond reason why anyone would want to genetically engineer alfalfa to be resistant to Roundup,” said Huber. “It’s just another example of laziness.”
If approved, the genetically engineered alfalfa would mean even more spraying of Roundup across vastly more acreage. It would mean more cattle and farm animals consuming the tainted Roundup-riddled feed stock and it would mean more Roundup working its way into the food chain.
It’s sounds like Armageddon, but that’s my word, not Don’s.
“It would be the end of farming as we know it within five years,” he said. “The way nature works, the genetics from the GM alfalfa would cross into the pure alfalfa very, very quickly. There would be no turning back. Ever. It wouldn’t be something we could ever fix . . . Ever.”
That word hung out there for a few moments in the cell phone ethos. You would have to hear Don Huber on the phone to know how very little this sounded like hyperbole.
“Well, all I can say is thank you for the work you’re doing,” I said.
And then, about to hang up, I thought of one more question. I already had my own answer in mind.
“Why, in your estimation, has your message not been taken more seriously thus far,” I asked. “Is it really just that there’s too much money to be made?”
The proper soldier wouldn’t bite on that one, as if he’d rather let his 300 peer-reviewed articles speak for themselves.
“There are those who don’t appreciate what I’m doing,” he said.
If you’re reading this, however, you can show your appreciation by letting our government know how you feel. Honor Don Huber’s work by making use of this information:
1) President Barack Obama:
Phone: (202) 456-1111
Fax: (202) 456-2461
2) USDA/APHIS; Email: email@example.com; or call 1-301-851-2300 and record your comments
MESSAGE: “I am ___________ from __________. I am calling to comment on USDA’s proposal to approve the commercial release of GE alfalfa and their failure to adequately address the public health, environmental, and economic consequences of that release. I strongly urge you to reject the planting of GE alfalfa.”