Perhaps the wheels of government are too heavy to stop once they are set in motion, or maybe they are just a little too well greased by their friends in industry. Whatever the reason, the folks at USDA were either unwilling or unable to apply the brakes on their decision to approve Monsanto’s genetically modified “Roundup Ready” alfalfa despite the urgent warning sent out two weeks before the announcement by Dr. Don Huber, a plant pathologist and retired Purdue University professor.
Huber expressed grave concern about a newly discovered pathogen that has been found in high concentrations of other Roundup Ready crops such as soybeans and corn.
Researchers believe that this pathogen could be causing infertility in livestock and diseases in crops that could threaten the entire domestic food supply.
In a letter that Huber wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on January 16, he said,
“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.”
Huber has spent much of his 40-year career as a scientist in the professional and military agencies that evaluate and prepare for natural and man-made biological threats, including germ warfare and disease outbreaks.
Huber asked Secretary Vilsack for an immediate moratorium of all Roundup Ready crops, but instead, on January 26, the agency deregulated the Roundup Ready alfalfa after a five year legal battle. A week later, on Feb 4th, the agency partially deregulated Roundup Ready sugar beets.
According to research by a group of senior scientists, this previously unknown pathogen, which is so small, it can only be seen by an electron microscope, has a significant impact on both plants and animals and quite possibly humans. This is quite rare. According to Dr. Huber’s letter, “if either the R[oundup] R[eady] gene or Roundup itself is a promoter or co-factor of this pathogen,” then, “approval could be a calamity.”
The “very serious” pathogen is found in much higher concentrations among Roundup Ready crops as compared to non-GMO varieties. He said laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of the organism in pigs, cattle and other livestock that have experienced spontaneous abortions and infertility.
USDA officials declined to comment about the letter’s contents.
“We’re reviewing it, and will respond directly to Dr. Huber, rather than responding through the media,” said USDA spokesman Andre Bell.
Huber has been studying Roundup Ready Alfalfa for some time. He published a study back in 2007 that showed that this variety was susceptible to manganese deficiencies while other varieties were not. He hypothesized that once the Roundup (glyphosate) was absorbed into a plant’s leaves, it traveled into the roots where it killed off micro-organisms that help make micro-nutrients available to the plant.
Opposition to the Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa was particularly strong among organic growers. This is because of contamination by pollinators. Once any trace of GM alfalfa is found in any plant, or in any animal that ate that plant, or any dairy products produced by that animal, it can no longer be considered organic even if the contamination was entirely accidental. So, of course, this could be devastating to the organic industry. A report submitted by Forage Genetics International, the company that developed the Roundup ready Alfalfa for Monsanto claimed that between 0 and 0.18% contamination of neighboring crops was likely to occur. However, during the period before the RR alfalfa was banned (2005-6), actual field data taken in California, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming by Dairyland and Cal/West Seeds showed rates of transgenic contamination as high as 12%.
Ironically, many experts believe that herbicides are totally unnecessary in alfalfa cultivation, since the plant grows vigorously and generally crowds out its competition. Indeed, its “ability to thrive in a wide range of environments allows alfalfa to grow as a prolific weed in most areas, including fields, ditches, roadways, backyards and beyond.”
One other point worth noting here, the top 50 companies holding either agricultural or food patents have contributed more than $572 million in campaign contributions and lobbying efforts since 1999. Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma), the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, who led the effort to deregulate Monsanto’s controversial alfalfa, has received some $1.25 million from agribusiness during his political career to date.
Because of the Roundup resistant super-weeds that have evolved, farmers are now using a domesticated version of Agent Orange to try to deal with this outbreak. The continuing escalation of chemical warfare in our food production system has led to an increase of at least at least 318 million more pounds of herbicides and pesticides used in the past 13 years as a result of planting GE crop seeds like Roundup Ready corn and soy, much of which ends up in our bodies This is particularly ironic considering that one of the selling points of GM foods in the first place was that they would reduce the need for pesticides.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, which focuses on sustainability issues involving energy. Follow-up volumes addressing food and water-related issues are in progress.
Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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