The Smoking Gun That Will Take Down Monsanto. Or Not

Last Updated Apr 5, 2011 2:04 PM EDT

In what could be the big fat smoking gun biotech critics have been looking for since 1996, a respected plant and soil scientist claims to have identified a strange, new disease-causing organism linked to Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans and corn. In a letter to the USDA, Don Huber, a retired Purdue University professor, issued a dire warning about GE crops, cautioning that this potent, unclassified organism could lead to a "general collapse of our critical agriculture infrastructure," ultimately destroying much of Monsanto's (MON) business.

That's one possibility, anyway.

The other is that Huber is wildly overreacting to some interesting results he got using an electron microscope, nuttily screaming about how the sky is falling in an attempt to either vilify GE crops or to arrive at some deeply meaningful scientific findings.

Which one is it? That we don't know yet because the whole ordeal is shrouded in secrecy and intrigue. Huber, the current coordinator of a committee within the USDA's National Plant Disease Recovery System, hasn't released his plant samples or other details of his results to scientists.

For its part, the USDA, a big supporter of genetically engineered crops, seems flummoxed by the letter. In February, a spokesperson told Reuters: "We're reviewing it, and will respond directly to Dr. Huber, rather than responding through the media." But then this month the agency curtly responded to the AP that "the only copy [of the letter] we received was forwarded by a third party, and we do not respond to third-party letters."

In his letter and in press interviews, Huber surmises that the newly discovered life form, which he says "appears to be a micro-fungal-like organism," probably has more to do with the widespread spraying of the herbicide chemical glyphosate, also known as Monsanto's Roundup, than it does actual GE technology. Many of Monsanto's GE seeds are engineered to withstand glyphosate, and some 155 million acres of land globally are sprayed with it every year.

The idea here is that Roundup use may have inadvertently facilitated the development of this uber-pathogen, much in the way Monsanto's superweed problem is an unwelcome side effect of Roundup. This concept has some merit since there's research indicating plants sprayed with glyphosate or other herbicides are more susceptible to biological and physiological disorders, although a disease increase in Roundup crops hasn't been proven.

As for all the secrecy, Huber, who lives in Idaho, says he didn't go through the usual, time-consuming process of submitting his work to a scientific publication for review because he wanted to get the message immediately to the USDA, which was weighing decisions on Monsanto's Roundup Ready GE alfalfa and Roundup Ready GE sugar beets, both of which the agency has since approved for planting.

And the anonymous members of his stealth "team of senior plant and animal scientists," hailing from the Midwest, Florida, Brazil and Canada? Huber says he doesn't want to identify them because some work for universities that receive funding from the biotech industry and he worries about them facing backlash.

This, too, makes some sense because companies like Monsanto haven't had the best relationship with independent scientists. In 2009, a group of 26 corn insect specialists from large universities filed a complaint with the EPA complaining that biotech firms weren't allowing them access to their proprietary seeds for study. These scientists also withheld their names because they feared being further cut off from research by the companies.

But whether any of this adds up to an agricultural emergency or a grand indictment of GE technology remains to be seen. Until Huber opens up his labs for scrutiny, we won't know if he'll be what Rachel Carson was to DDT or the Chicken Little of ag-biotech.

Image by Flickr user St Stev
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