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Plant disease raises questions on modified crops

Scientist alleges a link to a disease that's killing soybeans.

April 02, 2011|By P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times
  • Bob Hogan climbs back into his combine while harvesting soybeans in Pawnee, Ill., in October. A disease called sudden death syndrome has plagued the heartland and the nation's soybean industry.
Bob Hogan climbs back into his combine while harvesting soybeans in Pawnee,… (Seth Perlman / Associated…)

Bouncing down a dirt road a couple of summers ago, past a gentle patchwork of barnyards and soybean fields in central Iowa, farmer Kent Friedrichsen strained over the steering wheel of his van and stared through the windshield in dismay.

His soybean fields, where he'd used seeds developed by Monsanto Co. and sprayed with its popular glyphosate weed killer Roundup Ready, were littered with yellowed leaves and dead plants. Four days earlier, the plants had been waist high and emerald green.

Nearby, in fields where he had planted seeds that weren't genetically engineered and didn't use glyphosates, the soybean plants were still healthy and lush.

Farmers call this "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.

But, Friedrichsen said, "for years, I've wondered whether there wasn't something else."

Now, despite mountains of research to the contrary, 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 like Friedrichsen's.

"This organism appears NEW to science!" Huber wrote in a letter in January to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about the matter. He added, "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, 76, asked in the letter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate.

A USDA spokesman said Huber's letter was forwarded to its correspondence office Friday. "As part of normal protocol, Mr. Huber's letter will receive a response," the agency said in a statement.

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, Vilsack 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.

Slender, with a full head of gray hair and a quiet voice, Huber fits the Midwestern farming archetype. He's been married for 52 years and has 11 children and 36 grandchildren. When he spoke to a crowd of 80 farmers and University of Nebraska researchers about his claims last month, Huber opened his speech with a quote from the Book of Isaiah: "All flesh is grass."

The letter, however, does not read like the writings of a man with decades of experience as a plant pathologist. 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.

Huber declined to say publicly who his fellow researchers are, saying they are worried about professional backlash by their academic employers who received research funding from the biotechnology industry. Peers wondered if it was a fraud.

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