Scientist making unsubstantiated GMO claims

For the past three years, Don Huber, a retired plant pathologist from Purdue University, has been touring the country to promote his sensational claims about a new organism he discovered living in genetically modified crops, especially those treated with glyphosate (Roundup). This mystery organism supposedly causes severe problems in plant health, animal health and numerous disorders in humans.

And now this tour comes to Maui. It is based on allegations for which data is not provided or available. This is not how science works, and making unsubstantiated claims in public about harm to our health is irresponsible and sad. Typically a scientist shares his or her work with other scientists through presentations at professional meetings or seminars and in scientific publications so that it can be evaluated by peers regarding its accuracy, reproducibility and relevance. Science and society have benefited greatly from this process; and science has a very effective baloney-detection kit.

While it is understandable the public is susceptible to being misled on the topics of GMOs by those who believe that opinion is equivalent to evidence-based scientific studies, these particular accusations are in clear conflict with actual evidence from numerous well-respected academics in published papers. Just as disconcerting, Huber has not presented any data or peer-reviewed papers to back up his assertions and has refused to produce samples of the new organism to other scientists for further study.

I co-discovered a previously unknown group of symbiotic soybean-rhizobia from China, and once I published my findings in the journal Science I was obliged by accepted scientific protocol to provide these new organisms to any and all requestors so they could verify, falsify or expand on the discovery. Any professional scientist, Huber included, is obliged to do no less. In science, what is claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Further, his claims have been refuted by every peer review of the matter. The academics who have responded include the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, The Ohio State University Extension Service, Biofortified, the Purdue University Extension Service and the Iowa State University Extension Service. A paper by Stephen Duke in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry addresses these allegations head-on. The paper states that “neither the glyphosate resistant (GR) transgenes nor glyphosate use in GR crops increases crop disease and that yield data on GR crops do not support the hypotheses that there are substantive mineral nutrition or disease problems that are specific to GR crops.”

Even his own colleagues at Purdue University, his former employer, have challenged Huber, writing that there is no evidence to support his allegations. In response to these vacuous claims, University of Florida scientist Kevin Folta has even launched a petition on to demand that Huber either release his study material to the scientific community or stop the misinformation.

In April 2010, the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences issued a report titled “The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States,” which concludes U.S. farmers growing GM crops “are realizing substantial economic and environmental benefits such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields compared with conventional crops.”

GM crops have undergone a rigorous safety assessment following internationally accepted guidelines, and no verifiable cases of harm to human or animal health have occurred. Huber’s claims are in direct conflict with the weight of scientific evidence supporting the safety and beneficial impacts of GM crops. These reviews and analyses come from our most prestigious scientific bodies and were produced independent of sponsorship by any corporation. Given the lack of documented safety problems and the proved benefits of GM crops, apparently their most significant risk is not to use them.

An open, fact-based exchange of information is essential to discussions about genetic engineering, including its benefits and risks. This is not that. The organizations that are responsible for bringing Huber here to promote imaginary threats are doing a great disservice to the public and to science, and they should simply ask for the evidence.

* Harold H. Keyser, Ph.D., is a retired soil microbiologist and a former Maui County administrator for the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources.