Getting Roundup Out of Our Farm’s Soil

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.

July 2016 Update:  I just re-read my post below and find it cringe-worthy.  I’m leaving the post up for now to serve as a record for myself.

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.

Some Background

Corn farmer refills his sprayer with glyphosate. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37825376/ns/us_news-environment/#.TuzMv5jsv6E

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.

Why Fret?

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

Goss’s Wilt hurts corn yields. http://www.dtnprogressivefarmer.com

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:

  1. Inoculate seeds with beneficial microbes such as mycorrhyzae, nitrogen-fixing bacteria for legumes, etc.
  2. 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.
  3. Include a microbe stimulant, such as molasses or sugar, in the spray mix.  This gives the microbes an extra leg up.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Learn More

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.

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20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Rich on December 20, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    Personally, I am skeptical about Dr.Huber and his claims about glyphosate.

    For what it is worth, I spray glyphosate before no-tilling winter wheat and grain sorghum. Since I have gone to no-till and started using glyphosate, I see more earthworms and wildlife, much less erosion, quicker water infiltration, and less weeds.

    I might be wrong, and I might change the type of herbicides I use in the future, but right now the benefits I see from no-till (which needs glyphosate or another similar herbicide) outweigh any of the alleged harmful effects that Huber is suggesting could result from its use.

    After saying all that, it is interesting that lignites can be used to amend soils. There is an old oil well site in one of our fields that I cleaned up a few years ago so that I could turn it into cropland instead of a big weed patch. Part of this area always grows a thick stand of wheat and I have always wondered why. Now, I wonder if it because of the traces of drilling fluid (or lignites) left in that area.

    Now the question is how much is the concentration of lignite (humate) in that area? And, how much is needed to reach an effective level across the rest of the field?

    I’ve also noticed that there is usually some sweet clover growing among the wheat in that area too (which is what I was starting to think was causing the wheat to grow better). So, it might be a case of the the humates helping the clover grow which helps the wheat, instead of the clover growing on it’s own and helping the wheat.

    Reply

    • Hi Rich, I really hope you’re right. It looks like the evidence is starting to stack up though, especially regarding the decreased nutrition in crops receiving glyphosate applications. With once-rare diseases and disorders now becomming “normal” (like autism, ADHD, infertility, etc.) we as a society have to ask “Has anything changed?” The most significant and abrubt change has been GMO crops. Perhaps it is something else, like environmental accumulation of chemicals, but the new “organism” being on GMO feeds and not on normal feeds is a huge red flag to me. Again, I hope you’re right!

      Interesting about the previous drilling area in your field. Have you tried soil testing to find the difference? Lignites would probably show up as a higher CEC or organic matter. I’ve heard sweet clover loves calcium and sulfur, but besides that, maybe there’s a biology connection? Humates are supposed to provide nice housing for microbes. About the rate, one supplier at the conference suggested we apply no more than 500 lbs per acre of humates. This was crushed leonardite right out of the ground, not treated.

      I hear you on the earthworms. I’ve seen mixed effects here, and there’s no way to prove glyphosate killed the worms. The same soybean farmer farmed our fields and our neighbor’s fields. Earthworms are very hard to find in all fields except one, and that field looks the best by far on a soil test. Maybe decent soil buffers glyphosate’s effects? I’ve been wondering about this for a while. The farmer sprayed roundup about 3 times/year and planted a very sparse winter wheat cover crop each year on all fields.

      Reply

      • Posted by Rich on December 22, 2011 at 11:54 pm

        I haven’t tested the soil in that area because I figured that whatever results I got I would have a difficult time scaling the results up to the entire field.

        I’ve always read that earthworms need organic material, moisture, and a layer of thatch on the surface. Grass crops like wheat, rye, or oats with the thick shading from the crop canopy and the straw from the stubble is supposed to provide a more ideal habitat for earthworms.

        Grazing cattle on the wheat pasture and/or stubble after harvest is even better due to the manure and hoof action (at least that’s the way I see it).

  2. Posted by Jim Boak on September 14, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    There are spots in a field in Wheatley Ontario that was first sprayed in 1972 with 2 liters of glyphosate to eradicate a heavy patch of thistle. The 2 liters did not finish the job so the following year the thistle patch was back..The farmer applied 4 liters just to be sure. Some thistle plants came back and the farmer thought well – if 4 liters can not kill this weed I will use 10 litres…because I dont want them going to seed and starting over. The thistle was eradicated by the 10 liters and the carryover from the first 6 liters and still yet today that ground can not grow a good crop.. It is very slowly coming back but the results of that accumulation of glyphosate in 1972 are still seen today.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Amber Ogert on April 29, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Thanks for sharing this great info!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Jean Morgan on May 11, 2013 at 8:03 am

    Well I for one am taking all this GMO and glyphosate stuff seriously. I have done child care for over thirty years and seen a huge increase in child behavior issues in the last few years and it’s esculating. Now mind you I am only looking at my 4 grand children and 9 daycare children combined. Here is what i see in my current group. Two children who have tourettes syndrom, one who has been shown all the symptoms of bypolar (to young to diagnos as such), three who have beed stuttering for many months, two who have been sent home from school for emotional outbursts 8 times between the two of them in one school year, two with bowel issues and one with ADHD. These are not my diagnosis but they have seen by the proper Dr’s for them. Not to mention I also have a daughter who has only been able to bear one child due to spontanious abortions and difficulty concieving (she’s 29 now). Yes, there is a problem and I’m thinking it’s in the food.

    Reply

    • Jean, thanks for commenting. I’m not around kids much, but I’ve heard others talking about the same changes you are noticing. I don’t know if food is causing some of these declines or not, but food’s nutrition value has been declining for multiple generations now. If Dr. Huber is correct (haven’t heard about him in a while), GM foods aren’t boosting nutrition in the food supply, which can’t be good for our nation’s kids.

      We might be seeing the effects of multiple generations (epigenetics) of poor nutrition, or the effects of modern lifestyles with some toxicity exposure over multiple generations. It’s probably a mix of a whole lot of things, which is why science doesn’t seem to even be looking at the problem – it’s so big and difficult to dissect into researchable parts. I really feel for parents and grandparents out there with kids that have health problems with no apparent/easy treatment.

      Reply

      • Posted by Anna on July 27, 2013 at 8:26 pm

        In addition to the food supply, many women do not breastfeed their children in the USA. I know of several families with three or four generations of never breastfed people. 60 years of babies being fed, from day one on the outside, unfiltered by a loving mother’s human body, low nutrient highly processed chemical made formulas that in no way match the protective power of a mammalian mother’s milk.

        I am most unpopular in my opinion on breastfeeding being best for tiny human bodies, but, I think the lack of breastfeeding along with GMO meddled foods is really taking a fundamental toll on the human body here in the USA… If a body is fighting for nutrients from day one on the outside, this may reflect in a small human’s mind, with bad behaviors or even brain damage or autoimmune problems…

  5. Posted by Paula Glogovac on August 12, 2013 at 11:58 am

    I appreciate your sharing this information about Dr. Huber and his research. I’m very interested in starting a farm that is organic and the property I’m looking at has sprayed Roundup. I’m going to due a lot more to evaluate the property, even if it is in a good location. The soil is the most important aspect of an Organic Farm and I would never consider a property that has used Roundup extensively.

    Reply

    • Paula, good luck with your organic farm! Keep in mind that soil is extremely resilient. Roundup applications do not equal irreparable soil. Our soil, after a decade or so of RR soybeans, is proof of that.

      Reply

  6. Posted by mike on March 2, 2014 at 7:27 pm

    moving out of the big city and want to start our own small farm for personal use. is there an easy way to test the soil my self with quick results? or would collecting samples and sending them out be the only way? i want to be able to know the contents of the soil before purchasing a property..

    Reply

    • Yes getting soil samples tested is always an option. But you can tell a lot about soil quality just by looking at it. The best soil resembles chocolate cake – dark, crumbly, moist, and earthworms are a good sign. I would avoid the extremes – very heavy clay and very light sand. Assuming you’re in the US, a visit to your local ag extension or soil conservation district can be very valuable. They can tell you about soil profiles in your area and might know the soil quality of farms you’re thinking of buying.

      Reply

  7. Back in the early 70’s use kids couldn’t afford to buy worms. So instead we used to sneak into corn fields and pull a few corn stocks and fill up our cans with worms. Today just to prove a point to a friend of mine, went into the field next to his house pull up a few stocks of corn which had been cut, not worms. The soil is dead from roundup.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Eric Bjerregaard on June 17, 2016 at 6:45 am

    I doubt any of this is true and wonder if you are actually farming. The information you rely upon has all been proved false. This looks like an anti glyphosate propaganda rag. https://www.biofortified.org/2014/01/deconstructing-don-huber-a-tale-of-two-talks/ and https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/glp-facts/don-huber-science-still-looking-for-purdue-professors-gmo-pathogen-time-bomb/ and https://geneticmaize.wordpress.com/tag/debunking/

    Reply

    • I doubt any of this is true also. I fell for it. I love the biofortified site and now see that the anti-roundup and anti-gmo evidence is mostly false. I still maintain that roundup has been overused, however. I think most people agree on that. Entering the “farming” scene brand new just as marestail was acquiring roundup resistance and watching the weed progress to a point where roundup seemed almost beneficial to it was extremely eye opening to me. I wanted an explanation and jumped on the wrong one in error. I didn’t know evolution could happen so fast in plants, but now I know.
      We do have farmland, but we aren’t “farming” as defined as selling farmed products. We’ve never harvested or sold anything off our fields, and that’s why our soil improved so fast.

      Reply

      • Posted by Eric Bjerregaard on July 14, 2016 at 2:23 pm

        Thanks, you made my day. Over use of antibiotics is an issue in medicine. Same happens in Ag. It is the farmer that makes the difference. I once saw a paper cited by an anti g.e. type that was complaining about resistance. In the research involved the farmers admitted to using the same technology and crop without rotation for up to 7 years. A no no in my book.

  9. Posted by Eric Bjerregaard on June 30, 2016 at 6:26 am

    You folks are complete loons for buying into huber’s discredited bunk.

    Reply

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