February 2014 Update: I wrote the post below in December 2011. Since that time, my views have changed. My 2nd sentence below – glyphosate is harmful to soil life, crops, animals – appears to be based on bad science. And the scientific community is raising valid questions about Dr. Huber. I remain cautious about GMOs basically because I believe this argument is very valid – that believing GM crops are innocent until proven guilty doesn’t work when the potential harm hasn’t happened yet. And tremendous risk exists when we are overconfident with partial knowledge.
Roundup (glyphosate) has been touted as an environmentally friendly herbicide that quickly breaks down in the soil. New research shows glyphosate does not break down and has very harmful effects on soil life, our crops, and animals that eat the crops. Our fields were planted to Roundup-Ready soybeans for about a decade before we bought the farm, so we are very interested in mitigating the effects of glyphosate and getting it completely out of our soil. This post describes what we’ve learned so far and our plan for remediation.
Roundup is Monsanto’s brand of glyphosate, a plant killer (herbicide). Monsanto genetically modified agricultural crops to make them survive applications of Roundup. When farmers spray crop fields with Roundup, the weeds die and the crops live. This has been a huge time-saver for farmers. Until the recent emergence of Roundup-resistant weeds, Monsanto’s technology virtually wiped out the need for farmers to think about and labor over weeds, one of the principal farming burdens since the days of yore. The following amounts of these U.S. crops are genetically modified organisms (GMO): Soy (93%), cotton (93%), canola (90%), corn (87%), sugar beets (95%). Soy, corn, sugar beets, and most of canola go directly into the U.S. food supply, whether for livestock feed or for ingredients in processed foods found in every grocery store.
Dr. Huber, Emeritus Professor, Purdue
We first became alarmed at the potential hazards of Roundup and GMO crops after reading this May 2011 Acres USA interview of Dr. Huber, Professor Emeritus of Purdue University. In early December, we attended the Acres USA Eco Farming conference and heard Dr. Huber speak. His speech was enormously powerful. The audience gave him a standing ovation, and everyone walked out of the room in a dumbfounded stupor. Here’s why:
Soil Effects: Essential Nutrients and Beneficial Soil Organisms
Most herbicides and pesticides are mineral chelators, and glyphosate is no different. Chelators bind with minerals and make them unavailable to plants and soil life. Glyphosate doesn’t kill plants directly. Instead, it chelates (ties up) essential nutrients, like manganese, that plants need for their immune system to function and fend off soil-borne pathogens. Glyphosate works by shutting down plants’ immune systems so they become completely vulnerable to pathogens and die.
Glyphosate was initially thought to break down in the soil very quickly. Researchers thought it was gone because they couldn’t find it by itself in the soil, but now we know that it persists by binding with essential nutrients. Soil biology does eventually degrade glyphosate, but researchers think it takes a while. One study showed Roundup persisting in clay soils for over 20 years.
Nitrogen-fixing bacteria on plant root
Glyphosate is also toxic to beneficial soil organisms. These unfortunately include the bacteria that fix nitrogen, mycorrhyzal fungi, and earthworms. This might explain why our soil hasn’t improved after being in pasture grass for 3 years. We expected the soil biology to bounce back, but it just hasn’t. Dr. Huber said farmers used to be encouraged to rotate their herbicides because if one herbicide killed off a group of soil microbes, they would have a chance to come back. Since Roundup Ready crops hit the scene in 1996, farmers have been slamming fields with glyphosate for every year, usually multiple applications per year, for 15 years now. This has eliminated the chance for beneficial soil critters to repopulate.
Crop Effects: Nutrient Content and Disease
Manganese Deficiency in soybeans, Ronald J. Gehl, Michigan State University
Glyphosate’s negative soil effects show up in Roundup Ready plants. Dr. Huber cited the results of multiple peer-reviewed studies that show nutrient comparisons of Roundup Ready corn and soy versus regular corn and soy. Compared to normal crops, Roundup Ready crops had significantly less (up to 70% less) essential nutrients like manganese, copper and zinc. These nutrients are absolutely essential to animal and human health.
The depopulation of beneficial soil organisms is manifesting in increased plant diseases. Death of soil organisms doesn’t leave a void. Instead, it opens up opportunities for other soil organisms to take over. The organisms that end up dominating the soil ecology are usually the pathogenic ones that are held in check by beneficial organisms under normal conditions. This microbe imbalance, in addition to the loss of essential nutrients, is believed to be the cause of sharp increases in plant diseases such as Goss’s Wilt in
corn and Sudden Death Syndrome in soybeans. The missing essential nutrients cuts the quality of Roundup Ready crops, and the diseases are really hurting yields. The motto that GMO crops can feed the world is turning out to be a very false promise, to say the least.
Animal Effects: Infertility and Spontaneous Abortion
Dr. Huber said veterinarians in the Midwest are discovering more and more fertility problems with livestock. This is especially crippling to dairies, where cows must keep having calves in order to produce milk. Hog farmers are also having problems. He said vets and researchers worked together and discovered an organism that is new to science. It is very tiny, about the size of a small virus, but researchers don’t know how to classify it. Vets are finding this organism in livestock that have infertility and miscarriages, and they’re also finding it in high concentrations in the GMO feeds (corn, soy, cottonseed meal, etc.) Dr. Huber said it’s likely that this organism isn’t new to nature, but perhaps it has taken advantage of an opportunity to become dominant in our GMO agriculture system.
Humans have seen an uptick in fertility problems too, along with sharp increases in extreme food allergies, asthma, autism, and behavioral disorders like ADHD. Dr. Huber cited animal studies that showed these outcomes in livestock too. “Sound science” would at least look at GMO feeds and foods and try to rule them out as the cause. Unfortunately, this type of research receives no funding in the U.S. Hopefully, this will start to change. Dr. Huber is a true hero in my book, not just for his courage to push against the very strong government and agribusiness collusion forces, but also for his attempts to genuinely forge a partnership with the USDA on this problem. He has met with USDA leaders, handed over all the research, and is working with the USDA to investigate these issues. How many of us would’ve just tried to excoriate the USDA and FDA at every opportunity? I know I would have.
Our Remediation Plan
Glyphosate remediation was a big conversation topic at the Acres USA conference. By the end of the conference, the consensus landed on a “silver buckshot” approach. The approach was to do everything possible to (1) rejuvenate the beneficial soil organisms that will eventually degrade glyphosate and (2) add soil amendments that can help with detoxification. We were happy to learn that we’re already doing most of them! Here’s our plan:
- Inoculate seeds with beneficial microbes such as mycorrhyzae, nitrogen-fixing bacteria for legumes, etc.
- Spray microbe inoculants on the fields, especially inoculants that contain pseudomona bacteria. Pseudomona are easily wiped out by glyphosate, and some species are known to be detoxifiers.
- Include a microbe stimulant, such as molasses or sugar, in the spray mix. This gives the microbes an extra leg up.
- Bring back tillage. No-till farming, especially when combined with GMO crops, glyphosate, and few to no winter cover crops, tends to shut down the soil biology. Open the soils up to counteract this effect and to wake up the microbes.
- Amend the soil with humates. Humates are ancient organic matter that has decomposed as far as possible. It’s soft coal, known as leonardite or lignite in the drilling professions. Each microscopic humic acid molecule contains dozens of functional molecular groups and around 100 negatively charged sites that can bind with agricultural chemicals. Humates also add black organic matter (humus) to the soil and provide a nice home for microbes.
Our tractor with rotovator and front-mounted spray tank.
I’ve posted about our practices of inoculating seeds, rotovating (tillage) and spraying a microbe inoculant with molasses, so we’ll keep doing this. Adding humates to the soil has now moved up in priority. We found a humate supplier at the conference, so I’ll be posting about that in the near future.
Most of the research I mentioned above comes from my conference notes, the Acres article cited above, and these two videos of Dr. Huber (Part 1 and Part 2). Both are long and very informative. At the end of Part 2, Dr. Huber closes on a positive note. He says these deleterious effects can be turned around. We just need to first recognize what’s going on and work to correct it. For example, vets have been taking infertile livestock off of GMO feed, and it seems to work after about one year. There is hope. I sincerely hope all the research he cited is plain wrong, but if it turns out to be true, we’ll at least have the knowledge and a plan to correct the problems.