The following article reveals the devastating and unprecedented impact that Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide is having on the health of our soil, plants, animals, and human population. On top of this perfect storm, the USDA now wants to approve Roundup Ready alfalfa, which will exacerbate this calamity. Please tell USDA Secretary Vilsack not to approve Monsanto’s alfalfa today. [Note: typos corrected from Jan 16th, see details] While visiting a seed corn dealer’s demonstration plots in Iowa last fall, Dr. Don Huber walked past a soybean field and noticed a distinct line separating severely diseased yellowing soybeans on the right from healthy green plants on the left (see photo). The yellow section was suffering from Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS), a serious plant disease that ravaged the Midwest in 2009 and ’10, driving down yields and profits. Something had caused that area of soybeans to be highly susceptible and Don had a good idea what it was.
Don Huber spent 35 years as a plant pathologist at Purdue University and knows a lot about what causes green plants to turn yellow and die prematurely. He asked the seed dealer why the SDS was so severe in the one area of the field and not the other. “Did you plant something there last year that wasn’t planted in the rest of the field?” he asked. Sure enough, precisely where the severe SDS was, the dealer had grown alfalfa, which he later killed off at the end of the season by spraying a glyphosate-based herbicide (such as Roundup). The healthy part of the field, on the other hand, had been planted to sweet corn and hadn’t received glyphosate.
This was yet another confirmation that Roundup was triggering SDS. In many fields, the evidence is even more obvious. The disease was most severe at the ends of rows where the herbicide applicator looped back to make another pass (see photo). That’s where extra Roundup was applied.
Don’s a scientist; it takes more than a few photos for him to draw conclusions. But Don’s got more—lots more. For over 20 years, Don studied Roundup’s active ingredient glyphosate. He’s one of the world’s experts. And he can rattle off study after study that eliminate any doubt that glyphosate is contributing not only to the huge increase in SDS, but to the outbreak of numerous other diseases. (See selected reading list.)
Roundup: The perfect storm for plant disease
More than 30% of all herbicides sprayed anywhere contain glyphosate—the world’s bestselling weed killer. It was patented by Monsanto for use in their Roundup brand, which became more popular when they introduced “Roundup Ready” crops starting in 1996. These genetically modified (GM) plants, which now include soy, corn, cotton, canola, and sugar beets, have inserted genetic material from viruses and bacteria that allows the crops to withstand applications of normally deadly Roundup.
(Monsanto incentivizes farmers who buy Roundup Ready seeds to also use the company’s Roundup brand of glyphosate. For example, they only provide warranties on the approved herbicide brands and offer discounts through their “Roundup Rewards” program. This has extended the company’s grip on the glyphosate market, even after its patent expired in 2000.)*
The herbicide doesn’t destroy plants directly. It rather cooks up a unique perfect storm of conditions that revs up disease-causing organisms in the soil, and at the same time wipes out plant defenses against those diseases. The mechanisms are well-documented but rarely cited.
Some of the fungi promoted by glyphosate produce dangerous toxins that can end up in food and feed. Sudden Death Syndrome, for example, is caused by the Fusarium fungus. USDA scientist Robert Kremer found a 500% increase in Fusarium root infection of Roundup Ready soybeans when glyphosate is applied (see photos and chart). Corn, wheat, and many other plants can also suffer from serious Fusarium-based diseases.
But Fusarium’s wrath is not limited to plants. According to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, toxins from Fusarium on various types of food crops have been associated with disease outbreaks throughout history. They’ve “been linked to the plague epidemics” of medieval Europe, “large-scale human toxicosis in Eastern Europe,” oesophageal cancer in southern Africa and parts of China, joint diseases in Asia and southern Africa, and a blood disorder in Russia. Fusarium toxins have also been shown to cause animal diseases and induce infertility.
As Roundup use rises, plant disease skyrockets
When Roundup Ready crops were introduced in 1996, Monsanto boldly claimed that herbicide use would drop as a result. It did—slightly—for three years. But over the next 10 years, it grew considerably. Total herbicide use in the US jumped by a whopping 383 million pounds in the 13 years after GMOs came on the scene. The greatest contributor is Roundup.
Over time, many types of weeds that would once keel over with just a tiny dose of Roundup now require heavier and heavier applications. Some are nearly invincible. In reality, these super-weeds are resistant not to the glyphosate itself, but to the soilborne pathogens that normally do the killing in Roundup sprayed fields.
Having hundreds of thousands of acres infested with weeds that resist plant disease and weed killer has been devastating to many US farmers, whose first response is to pour on more and more Roundup. Its use is now accelerating. Nearly half of the huge 13-year increase in herbicide use took place in just the last 2 years. This has serious implications.
As US farmers drench more than 135 million acres of Roundup Ready crops with Roundup, plant diseases are enjoying an unprecedented explosion across America’s most productive crop lands. Don rattles off a lengthy list of diseases that were once under effective management and control, but are now creating severe hardship. (The list includes SDS and Corynespora root rot of soybeans, citrus variegated chlorosis (CVC), Fusarium wilt of cotton, Verticillium wilt of potato, take-all root, crown, and stem blight of cereals, Fusarium root and crown rot, Fusarium head blight, Pythium root rot and damping off, Goss’ wilt of corn, and many more.)
In Brazil, the new “Mad Soy Disease” is ravaging huge tracts of soybean acreage. Although scientists have not yet determined its cause, Don points out that various symptoms resemble a rice disease (bakanae) which is caused by Fusarium.
Corn dies young
In recent years, corn plants and entire fields in the Midwest have been dying earlier and earlier due to various diseases. Seasoned and observant farmers say they’re never seen anything like it.
“A decade ago, corn plants remained green and healthy well into September,” says Bob Streit, an agronomist in Iowa. “But over the last three years, diseases have turned the plants yellow, then brown, about 8 to 10 days earlier each season. In 2010, yellowing started around July 7th and yield losses were devastating for many growers.”
Bob and other crop experts believe that the increased use of glyphosate is the primary contributor to this disease trend. It has already reduced corn yields significantly. “If the corn dies much earlier,” says Bob, “it might collapse the corn harvest in the US, and threaten the food chain that it supports.”
A question of bugs
In addition to promoting plant diseases, which is well-established, spraying Roundup might also promote insects. That’s because many bugs seek sick plants. Scientists point out that healthy plants produce nutrients in a form that many insects cannot assimilate. Thus, farmers around the world report less insect problems among high quality, nutrient-dense crops. Weaker plants, on the other hand, create insect smorgasbords. This suggests that plants ravaged with diseases promoted by glyphosate may also attract more insects, which in turn will increase the use of toxic pesticides. More study is needed to confirm this.
Roundup persists in the environment
Monsanto used to boast that Roundup is biodegradable, claiming that it breaks down quickly in the soil. But courts in the US and Europe disagreed and found them guilty of false advertising. In fact, Monsanto’s own test data revealed that only 2% of the product broke down after 28 days.
Whether glyphosate degrades in weeks, months, or years varies widely due to factors in the soil, including pH, clay , types of minerals, residues from Roundup Ready crops, and the presence of the specialized enzymes needed to break down the herbicide molecule. In some conditions, glyphosate can grab hold of soil nutrients and remain stable for long periods. One study showed that it took up to 22 years for glyphosate to degrade only half its volume! So much for trusting Monsanto’s product claims.
Glyphosate can attack from above and below. It can drift over from a neighbors farm and wreak havoc. And it can even be released from dying weeds, travel through the soil, and then be taken up by healthy crops.
The amount of glyphosate that can cause damage is tiny. European scientists demonstrated that less than half an ounce per acre inhibits the ability of plants to take up and transport essential micronutrients (see chart).
As a result, more and more farmers are finding that crops planted in years after Roundup is applied suffer from weakened defenses and increased soilborne diseases. The situation is getting worse for many reasons.
|The diseased field on the right had glyphosate applied the previous season. Photo by Don Huber|
|Sudden Death Syndrome is more severe at the ends of rows, where Roundup dose is strongest. Photo by Amy Bandy.|
- The glyphosate molecule grabs vital nutrients and doesn’t let them go. This process is called chelation and was actually the original property for which glyphosate was patented in 1964. It was only 10 years later that it was patented as an herbicide. When applied to crops, it deprives them of vital minerals necessary for healthy plant function—especially for resisting serious soilborne diseases. The importance of minerals for protecting against disease is well established. In fact, mineral availability was the single most important measurement used by several famous plant breeders to identify disease-resistant varieties.
- Glyphosate annihilates beneficial soil organisms, such as Pseudomonas and Bacillus bacteria that live around the roots. Since they facilitate the uptake of plant nutrients and suppress disease-causing organisms, their untimely deaths means the plant gets even weaker and the pathogens even stronger.
- The herbicide can interfere with photosynthesis, reduce water use efficiency, lower lignin , damage and shorten root systems, cause plants to release important sugars, and change soil pH—all of which can negatively affect crop health.
- Glyphosate itself is slightly toxic to plants. It also breaks down slowly in soil to form another chemical called AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid) which is also toxic. But even the combined toxic effects of glyphosate and AMPA are not sufficient on their own to kill plants. It has been demonstrated numerous times since 1984
Glyphosate with sterile soil (A) only stunts plant growth. In normal soil (B), pathogens kill the plant. Control (C) shows normal growth.
- The actual plant assassins, according to Purdue weed scientists and others, are severe disease-causing organisms present in almost all soils. Glyphosate dramatically promotes these, which in turn overrun the weakened crops with deadly infections.
|Photo by Robert Kremer|
- The glyphosate concentration in the soil builds up season after season with each subsequent application.
- Glyphosate can also accumulate for 6-8 years inside perennial plants like alfalfa, which get sprayed over and over.
Wheat affected after 10 years of glyphosate field applications.
- Glyphosate can find its way onto farmland accidentally, through drifting spray, in contaminated water, and even through chicken manure!
|Jeffrey Smith is the author of, most recently, Genetic Roulette.|