Former Purdue University professor Don Huber is no chemo-phobe — he just hates to see a product of science go to waste. LSP’s podcast/PowerPoint presentation on the herbicide glyphosate featuring Huber makes that point. In the presentation, Huber comes across as a scientist who is profoundly disappointed that a sound crop production tool has, in some cases, evolved into a farming liability. “It’s been a very powerful tool for us,” says Huber of glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s blockbuster herbicide Roundup. “But it’s the most abused chemical we’ve ever had in agriculture. We’re losing a tool, because we’ve abused it.”
Unfortunately, Huber’s concerns about glyphosate’s long-term negative impacts on soil health have mostly been met with derision not just by Monsanto (which should be expected) but by many of his fellow scientists. The term “junk science” has been used in connection with his name, and the head of Purdue’s botany and plant pathology department has been quoted as questioning the professor’s integrity.
However, it’s looking like some within the “mainstream” scientific community are starting to realize that there is just too much evidence to ignore. Tom Philpott reported recently about the alarm bells Robert Kremer and other respected agriculture experts have been sounding. Kremer is a microbiologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and has been voicing concerns about the overuse of Roundup/glyphosate for some time. But now media outlets like Reuters are paying attention. Here’s a passage from a wire service article:
“This could be something quite big. We might be setting up a huge problem,” said Kremer, who expressed alarm that regulators were not paying enough attention to the potential risks from biotechnology on the farm, including his own research…”Science is not being considered in policy setting and deregulation. This research is important. We need to be vigilant.”
Saying any herbicide is a threat to long-term crop production and a bigger environmental problem than we’ve been led to believe is always risky business. But it’s particularly problematic when the chemical in question is the active ingredient in Roundup. During the past several years, Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide has become one of the most popular weed killers in the world. Most of that success is due to the fact that Monsanto has genetically engineered crops such as corn and soybeans that resist being killed by Roundup. That means when “Roundup Ready” crop fields are sprayed with the herbicide, the crops survive, but weeds die.
Huber and Kremer’s argument is that glyphosate is a victim of its own success. It’s just been too effective and too easy to use for too long. He expresses dismay that suburban homeowners can buy Roundup in a grocery store to spray weeds between their sidewalks. It’s long been known that this overuse is creating superweeds that resist being killed by herbicides. Now it’s looking like all those gallons of glyphosate are spawning pathogens in the soil that are also resistant to being controlled.
“What we’re seeing in the last 15 to 18 years is a lot of pathogens we thought we had under control are all of a sudden out of control,” says Huber.
That’s why the USDA’s willingness to put more GMO products on the market is so troubling.
Listening to Huber on LSP’s podcast (it’s episodes 98-102), one can tell he’s no advocate for organic farming. He refers to crop fields as “factories” and has promoted agrichemical use during his 50-plus years as a scientist who has studied cropping systems literally all over the world. But in his line of work, Huber talks to a lot of researchers, farmers, crop consultants and other ag professionals, and many are telling the same story: mysterious diseases are popping up in fields where glyphosate is being used. As a former intelligence analyst for the Department of Defense, Huber knows how to collect information and look for troubling trends.
Huber is careful to make clear we are not in a “calamity” when it comes to crop production. Midwestern farmers will still produce bin-busting yields in the foreseeable future. But nature is giving us plenty of red flags when it comes to abuse of glyphosate, and it’s time we paid attention to them before it’s too late. We should use these warning signals to rotate the chemicals we use, and perhaps even consider farming systems that drop herbicides altogether and rely on diversity, cover crops and good soil health.
The problem is, a whole generation of farmers have grown up using little else than glyphosate to control weeds. Reducing our reliance on the Roundup Ready system will require land grant researchers, Extension educators and input suppliers to come together with farmers to promote alternatives.
But before that happens, there will need to be an acknowledgment that there is a problem with our glyphosate-centric way of crop production.
“Agriculture is the most critical infrastructure for a productive society,” says Huber. “Quite often we can get enamored with the bells and whistles and the technology and we forget our purpose.”
And our purpose? It’s to feed people, not Monsanto’s bottom line.