‘The most abused chemical we’ve ever had in agriculture.’


Professor Don Huber is not a chemo-phobe — he just hates to see a product of science go to waste. LSP’s new five-part podcast on the plant pathologist’s discussion of Roundup/glyphosate makes that clear (click here to listen; it’s episodes 98-102). 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 at one point during his talk, which was given in Nebraska March 24. “But it’s the most abused chemical we’ve ever had in agriculture. We’re losing a tool, because we’ve abused it.”

It would be nice if Huber’s detractors could listen to him talk about glyphosate before they dismiss him outright as someone who is biased against the use of all pesticides. And since he began going public with his concerns that over-use of glyphosate is threatening the soil’s long-term ability to produce healthy plants, the Purdue University emeritus professor has drawn plenty of detractors within mainstream agriculture. An April 15 Chicago Tribune article used the term “junk” when referring to Huber’s science, and the head of Purdue’s botany and plant pathology department has been quoted as questioning the professor’s integrity. I guess having five decades of highly respected plant disease research under your belt doesn’t count for much once you retire.

In a classic case of  how a trigger-happy Internet can be used to spread misinformation, one website filed a report on Feb. 24 claiming that a letter Huber had sent U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressing concerns about glyphosate was a “fraud.” After the USDA confirmed that in fact Huber did send Vilsack a letter, a short correction was posted the next day, but the damage has been done: in some people’s minds, the professor’s name will forever be linked to the word “fraud.” That’s too bad, because he should be listened to.

It’s no surprise that Huber is drawing fire. As we’ve reported in this blog previously, he has been spending the past year or so highlighting compelling evidence that glyphosate use is creating unprecedented plant disease problems by changing soil biology, among other things. This turns on its head the widely-held assumption that the broad spectrum herbicide is relatively benign when compared to other weed killers since it mobilizes quickly, supposedly not hanging around long enough to cause problems. But as Huber points out, glyphosate may be quite mobile, but that isn’t the same as being biodegradable. In fact, research shows it’s quite capable of being a long-term resident in soil. (For an in-depth look at this issue, check out USDA-ARS soil microbiologist Robert Kremer’s recent Iowa State presentation at Iowa State here (pdf slides) and here (video).

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, which glyphosate is. 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’s main 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 approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa this winter— a step that will increase glyphosate use by an incredible amount—is so troubling.  This step prompted Huber to write two letters to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack outlining what he saw as an “emergency” situation concerning the use of glyphosate on crop fields. In his letters (and the LSP podcasts), Huber cites new research he says shows that the herbicide could be linked to not only crop diseases and superweeds, but health problems in livestock, among other problems.

Listening to Huber, 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.

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