Botanist cautions danger with genetically engineered crops

  • Don Huber, emeritus professor of plant pathology at Purdue University, speaks about glyphosate and its effects on the environment during his keynote address at the NOFA Summer Conference 2017 at Hampshire College. Gazette Photo/Jerrey Roberts

Monday, August 14, 2017


AMHERST — About 20 years ago, progress in genetic engineering promised to solve most agricultural and food supply issues, Don Huber told a crowd of several hundred people Saturday afternoon. Instead, the botanist said, genetically engineered plants created more problems for U.S. agriculture.

Huber, Professor Emeritus of botany and plant pathology at Purdue University, spoke about the negative effects of genetically engineered crops Saturday afternoon at Hampshire College during the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s summer conference, where Huber was the keynote speaker.

“We have found ourselves in a massive genetic engineering experiment because of our lack of knowledge of what we’re really doing,” Huber said. “A single gene edit creates a ripple of other consequences in that crop.”

Hubert said he has studied epidemiology and plant pathogens for 55 years with a focus on the effects of Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, Monsanto’s flagship herbicide. He has also advised U.S. agencies on issues of biological and biochemical weapons and has written more than 300 journal and review articles and book chapters.

Genetically engineered plants are created with good intentions in mind, Huber said, but unintended consequences usually crop up, too.

For example, Huber said, 85 percent of genetically engineered crops are bred to tolerate the Roundup. But while this allows for the herbicide’s use to deter weeds and disease, the toxic chemicals in Roundup that kill insects build up in the plant, in pollinators of the plant and in anyone who consumes that plant.

“No plant genetically engineered in this way would pass a reasonable scientific safety evaluation,” Huber said. “It takes very little gene editing and very small amounts of chemicals to create dangerous results.”

Huber said he believes genetically engineered crops have much more to do with vanishing pollinators, disease in humans, plants and animals and damaged soil than previously thought.

This idea — that natural soils and crops are better for people and the environment — is the heart of why many people say they attend the NOFA conference.

“I think that was a really important explanation for people to hear,” Jessica Barbini, from Ithaca, N.Y., said. “I think it’s a very powerful thing to teach other people how to take care of themselves and take care of the earth.”

Barbini, 22, graduated this May from Cornell University with a degree in food science and said she has been living and working on an organic farm since her graduation. She said she thinks she’ll continue with farming in the future.

Other attendees said they were careful not to take every presentation at the conference at face value, but appreciated the chance to learn more about organic farming, which is a profession for some and a hobby for others.

Dave Conna, from Stow, said he’s been attending NOFA conferences for close to 20 years. Conna said he works in energy conservation and is an organic gardener. He’s starting to think about buying an organic farm in western Massachusetts.

“I believe there’s a lot of people here trying to do good work and learn more about what they’re doing,” Conna said. “I’m always skeptical of the honesty of corporations like Monsanto, who have a lot of self-interest you have to be aware of. There’s a lot of interesting dialogue at conventions like this that can help you get at the facts.”

NOFA wasn’t all doom and gloom about threats to organic crops, though. Much of the conference was a celebration of organic farming.

On Saturday afternoon, vendors in tents offered information on organic fertilizers and energy conservation efforts in New England. But they also encouraged people to sign up for a pie-eating contest, sit on a pair of old-fashioned tractors and sample organic lemonade and honey.

A parade marched around a Hampshire College courtyard, led by a saxophone playing “You Are My Sunshine,” and with two organic sheep bringing up the rear of the parade with a bleat here and there.

“This sort of environment is why I got really interested in food and farming in the first place,” Barbini said. “I think there’s a different, happier relationship between you and the plants and animals you work with.”