Plant disease raises questions on modified crops
Sudden death syndrome (SDS) of soybean was first discovered in 1971 in Arkansas and since then has been confirmed throughout most soybean-growing areas of the U.S. SDS is a fungal disease that also occurs in a disease complex with the soybean cyst nematode (SCN, Heterodera glycines). SDS is among the most devastating soil-borne diseases of soybean in the USA. When this disease occurs in the presence of SCN disease symptoms occur earlier and are more severe. Disease symptoms are most pronounced after flowering.
Sudden death syndrome (SDS) of soybean is typically not detectable on the foliage of plants until after the beginning of flowering. Under rare circumstances younger plants may show symptoms. It is always useful to compare the affected plants with healthy plants of the same field when making disease assessments.
"Sudden death syndrome," a plant disease that has plagued the country's heartland and the nation's estimated $36.8-billion soybean industry. Scientists, who first spotted the disease in Arkansas in 1971 — more than 20 years before Monsanto introduced its Roundup Ready soybeans in the U.S. — blame damp weather and a fungus that rots the plant roots.
One soil scientist is roiling the agricultural world with claims that there might be some truth to the farmer's unease. Don M. Huber, an emeritus professor at Purdue University who has done research for Monsanto on chemical herbicides, alleges that he has found a link between genetically modified crops and crop diseases and infertility in livestock: an "unknown organism" he and other researchers claim to have discovered last summer in Midwestern fields. Huber, 76, asked in the letter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate.
"This organism appears NEW to science! 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."
Though the science behind Huber's claims is far from settled — and Huber has refused to make public any evidence of his claims — his letter has intensified the battle between those who believe technology is the only way to feed a ballooning global population and those who are increasingly fearful that biotechnology is resulting in food that is nutritionally lacking and environmentally dangerous.
This year the Obama administration announced several decisions that have generated concern in the organic farming industry. After conducting a court-ordered environmental impact review, goverment approved the planting of genetically modified alfalfa. (The USDA also approved a type of corn that can be used to make ethanol and gave the OK to plant genetically engineered sugar beets in certain situations.)
Alfalfa, like the soybean, is a legume and a key food source for livestock and dairy cattle. To the organic farming industry, the fear is one of possible contamination, in the form of seeds or pollen from genetically engineered crops being picked up by the wind, bees or birds and falling onto nearby organic fields. Such contamination can be devastating to organic farmers, cheese makers and dairy producers, who say even the smallest presence of genetically engineered seed can result in domestic retailers and overseas buyers refusing to buy their products.
Huber's letter was leaked onto the Internet in February and was posted on scores of websites including the Huffington Post and gardening blogs. It also catapulted Huber into the spotlight.
Here is the transcript of his letter dated January 16, 2011:
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
A team of senior plant and animal scientists have recently brought to my attention the discovery of an electron microscopic pathogen that appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings. Based on a review of the data, it is widespread, very serious, and is in much higher concentrations in Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans and corn-suggesting a link with the RR gene or more likely the presence of Roundup. This organism appears NEW to science!
This is highly sensitive information that could result in a collapse of US soy and corn export markets and significant disruption of domestic food and feed supplies. On the other hand, this new organism may already be responsible for significant harm (see below). My colleagues and I are therefore moving our investigation forward with speed and discretion, and seek assistance from the USDA and other entities to identify the pathogen's source, prevalence, implications, and remedies.
We are informing the USDA of our findings at this early stage, specifically due to your pending decision regarding approval of RR alfalfa. Naturally, if either the RR gene or Roundup itself is a promoter or co-factor of this pathogen, then such approval could be a calamity. Based on the current evidence, the only reasonable action at this time would be to delay deregulation at least until sufficient data has exonerated the RR system, if it does.
For the past 40 years, I have been a scientist in the professional and military agencies that evaluate and prepare for natural and manmade biological threats, including germ warfare and disease outbreaks. Based on this experience, 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.
A diverse set of researchers working on this problem have contributed various pieces of the puzzle, which together presents the following disturbing scenario:
Unique Physical Properties
This previously unknown organism is only visible under an electron microscope (36,000X), with an approximate size range equal to a medium size virus. It is able to reproduce and appears to be a micro-fungal-like organism. If so, it would be the first such micro-fungus ever identified. There is strong evidence that this infectious agent promotes diseases of both plants and mammals, which is very rare.
Pathogen Location and Concentration
It is found in high concentrations in Roundup Ready soybean meal and corn, distillers meal, fermentation feed products, pig stomach contents, and pig and cattle placentas.
Linked with Outbreaks of Plant Disease
The organism is prolific in plants infected with two pervasive diseases that are driving down yields and farmer income-sudden death syndrome (SDS) in soy, and Goss' wilt in corn. The pathogen is also found in the fungal causative agent of SDS (Fusarium solani fsp glycines).
Implicated in Animal Reproductive Failure
Laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of this organism in a wide variety of livestock that have experienced spontaneous abortions and infertility. Preliminary results from ongoing research have also been able to reproduce abortions in a clinical setting.
The pathogen may explain the escalating frequency of infertility and spontaneous abortions over the past few years in US cattle, dairy, swine, and horse operations. These include recent reports of infertility rates in dairy heifers of over 20%, and spontaneous abortions in cattle as high as 45%.
For example, 450 of 1,000 pregnant heifers fed wheatlege experienced spontaneous abortions. Over the same period, another 1,000 heifers from the same herd that were raised on hay had no abortions. High concentrations of the pathogen were confirmed on the wheatlege, which likely had been under weed management using glyphosate.
In summary, because of the high titer of this new animal pathogen in Roundup Ready crops, and its association with plant and animal diseases that are reaching epidemic proportions, we request USDA's participation in a multi-agency investigation, and an immediate moratorium on the deregulation of RR crops until the causal/predisposing relationship with glyphosate and/or RR plants can be ruled out as a threat to crop and animal production and human health.
It is urgent to examine whether the side-effects of glyphosate use may have facilitated the growth of this pathogen, or allowed it to cause greater harm to weakened plant and animal hosts. It is well-documented that glyphosate promotes soil pathogens and is already implicated with the increase of more than 40 plant diseases; it dismantles plant defenses by chelating vital nutrients; and it reduces the bioavailability of nutrients in feed, which in turn can cause animal disorders. To properly evaluate these factors, we request access to the relevant USDA data.
I have studied plant pathogens for more than 50 years. We are now seeing an unprecedented trend of increasing plant and animal diseases and disorders. This pathogen may be instrumental to understanding and solving this problem. It deserves immediate attention with significant resources to avoid a general collapse of our critical agricultural infrastructure.
COL (Ret.) Don M. Huber
Emeritus Professor, Purdue University
APS Coordinator, USDA National Plant Disease Recovery System (NPDRS)
As the letter notes, this research is still preliminary. However, Huber, who has 40 years experience working as a scientist for "professional and military agencies that evaluate and prepare for natural and manmade biological threats, including germ warfare and disease outbreaks," believes this should be treated as an emergency until more research can confirm or disprove these initial findings. Peppered with capital letters and exclamation points, Huber's letter calls the alleged discovery the "microscopic pathogen. In an interview, he called his finding "it." Huber said this is all he knows: "It's a life form." It could be innocuous, Huber said. It may have been around for a long time, even if scientists never knew it.
Needless to say, the recent deregulation of GE alfalfa is something to think about, because that will dramatically increase the use of Roundup on animal feed and the feeding of Roundup Ready crops to our livestock.
Another letter was sent to president Obama by Maria Rodale, CEO and Chairman of Rodale, Inc. and book author.
Dear President Obama,
I have been a devoted supporter of your presidency up until now. But by allowing the complete deregulation of GMO/GE alfalfa, and now sugar beets, you have unleashed another wave of uncontainable contamination on this planet. These toxic crops not only exist so that companies like Monsanto can make more money by selling more toxic chemicals that destroy our environment and our climate, but also the human diseases that these chemicals cause are at the root of the health issues you claim are so important to you and your family, including: cancer, diabetes, obesity, autism, ADHD, childhood leukemia, organ failure, infertility, birth defects, and reduced intelligence.
I am extremely disappointed that you gave in to the bullying of Monsanto and its legion of lobbyists, all paid for by the corrupt subsidies of the American Farm Bill.
If you really want to create jobs, support organic farmers. If you really want to lower taxes, support organic farmers. If you really want to improve the health of people and the planet, support organic farmers. If you really care about developing a healthy, smart, and educated future American population, you MUST support organic farmers. If you really want to stop climate change, support organic farmers.
What on earth were you thinking? You are obviously an intelligent man. Please develop the courage and strength that the American people require of you and make the right decisions for all of us for the long term. Ultimately, your most important job is to protect America and the American people. By deregulating GE/GMO alfalfa and sugar beets, you have failed.
CEO and Chairman of Rodale Inc.
author of Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe
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Today, four countries account for 99% of the world's commercially grown transgenic crops. But that is changing — policies are being thrashed out, laws drawn up, and seeds sown. Here you can see how GM is taking root.
GM WORLDVIEW MAP
The United States is the world's leading GM nation, both in terms of the area under cultivation and public acceptance of transgenic food. GM crops are everywhere, making up 40% of the country's maize, 81% of soya beans, 65% of canola, or oilseed rape, and 73% of cotton — and those numbers are still growing. GM crops are widely used in food for both humans and animals, none of which needs to be labelled as transgenic. The situation is similar in Canada, where GM corn, soya beans and canola are widely grown. But concern is building about the next target for agribiotech giant Monsanto, which is applying to both the US and Canadian governments for permission to market GM wheat. Canadian farmers fear that the introduction of transgenic varieties could destroy their foreign markets, particularly in Japan, where GM products aren't welcomed by consumers.
What are GMOs?GMOs (or “genetically modified organisms”) are organisms that have been created through the gene-splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE). This relatively new science allows DNA from one species to be injected into another species in a laboratory, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.
How common are GMOs?
According to the USDA, in 2007, 91% of soy, 87% of cotton, and 73% of corn grown in the U.S. were GMO. It is estimated that over 75% of canola grown is GMO, and there are also commercially produced GM varieties of sugar beets, squash and Hawaiian Papaya. As a result, it is estimated that GMOs are now present in more than 80% of packaged products in the average U.S. or Canadian grocery store. (FARFA)
Global Distribution of Genetically Modified (GM) Crops
Facts and figures about genetically modified organisms
GM Crops: A World View