(AP) — Agriculture technology firms and South Dakota producers are trying to refute claims by a Purdue scientist that Roundup Ready technology could be responsible for a microscopic pathogen "that appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals and probably human beings."
The bio-warning first became news in mid-January when Don Huber, a retired Army colonel and emeritus professor at Purdue University, wrote to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack protesting the pending deregulation of genetically engineered alfalfa, warning that "such approval could be a calamity."
infertility and spontaneous abortions.
Huber asked Vilsack for an "immediate moratorium on the deregulation of Roundup Ready crops until the causal/predisposing relationship with glyphosate and/or Roundup Ready plants can be ruled out as a threat to crop and animal production and human health."
The USDA did not heed the warning and has since deregulated genetically engineered alfalfa, as well as genetically engineered corn that will be used for ethanol.
Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide that is the main component of Roundup, a trademark of the Monsanto Corp., which is used throughout the Midwest to keep newly planted fields weed-free. It is used in conjunction with the planting of genetically engineered, glyphosate-resistant seeds, a technology commonly referred to as "Roundup Ready."
Huber's claims have been lauded by environmental groups and generally rejected by scientists.
Recently appointed South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Walt Bones took no side on the issue.
"We don't have the 'science' to refute or support Dr. Huber's claims at this time," wrote Bones in an e-mail response to The Daily Republic. The quotation marks are his.
"As far as an official statement from the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, I would say that our producers need to make informed decisions on the products they use. We support decisions based on science - that is, information that has passed all the official channels."
Monsanto panned Huber's position in a Feb. 22 statement.
"No data was provided nor cited, and no collaborators were identified," it read. It also said the coordinator of the USDA's National Plant Disease Recovery system "was unfamiliar with information or research about the alleged pathogen" and hadn't been contacted by Huber.
Huber did not return calls or answer e-mails from The Daily Republic on the matter.
Peter Goldsbrough, head of Purdue's Botany and Plant Pathology department, said in a telephone interview that his department has been fielding "an increasing number of inquiries" about Huber's claims. Huber is officially retired and is no longer involved in daily research at Purdue, Goldbrough said.
"There has been no evidence presented to the scientific community about this purported organism," Goldsbrough said, "so it's very difficult to really make any useful comment on that new organism when you don't know what it might be or how it was identified."
Goldsborough said he is unaware of any professional colleague with knowledge of a submicroscopic fungal organism of the type Huber warned of. If the claims are indeed true, he said, "there will be a lot of research opportunities in the future to study this new pathogen - if and when it's identified."
On Feb. 24, Purdue published a paper addressing several of Huber's claims.
The paper, "Glyphosate's Impact on Field Crop Production and Disease Development," is not a direct response to Huber's claims in his warning letter to Secretary Vilsack about a threatening new organism, Goldsbrough said, but it does address some of his concerns.
The publication said research supports claims that plants sprayed with herbicides like glyphosate "can make plants more susceptible to disease," as well as some fungi, but "plant pathologists have not observed a widespread increase in susceptibility to plant disease in glyphosate-resistant corn and soybeans."