GMOs, Glyphosate & Tomorrow
Year Published: 2011
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX15383
Any time you have a single gene in so many different crops, especially a gene that impacts the normal resistance and defense mechanism in the plant, and you spread that same vulnerability across so many plants, you should anticipate a high level of vulnerability.
Seeds evolved for millions of years before humans invented corporate agribusiness. Genetic selection
to improve crops began only when people invented farming. Early on, there was a vast germ
pool from which to select differences in vigour, growth, quality characteristics, yield or disease resistance.
Even after years of extensive selection and later blending into hybrids by diligent researchers
during the past century, most of this inheritance is unpatentable and therefore useless as a source
of power or corporate-style profit.
Genetic engineering to modify crops exists because most of the world’s farmers depend on
seeds, and as a novel way to manipulate genes it offered inviolate proprietary control. Two traits
account for practically all of the genetically modified crops grown in the world today. One deploys
herbicide-tolerance enabled by a glyphosate-insensitive form of the EPSPS gene coding (key to this
GMO is the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens). The other uses insect-resistance due to
one or more toxin genes derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.
It is the former that concerns us here, for without glyphosate, the biotech industry would be
an orphan, all dressed up with nowhere to go. Glyphosate, often known as Roundup® after the
popular Monsanto product but available in many guises since its patent expired in 2000, is the
partner GMOs must bring to the dance. It is a broad-spectrum herbicide that ingeniously ties up
nutrient access rather than killing unwanted plants directly. It was heralded for many years as a
relatively benign replacement for the horrific, dioxin-based herbicides of the past. The figures don’t
lie; GMOs drive glyphosate sales.
Enter Don Huber, a plant pathologist of 50 years standing, now Emeritus Professor at Purdue
University and enjoying an active post-academic life. Huber is an international authority on
nutrient deficiency diseases of plants and is particularly well situated to comment on glyphosate as
it functions through nutrient tie-up, not inherent toxicity.