Written by Rob Wallbridge
This is a story of two talks, both of which are almost identical. It’s also the story of two people, both of whom are also the same person. What separates both are a couple of years, perspective gained, and perspective lost.
I first heard Dr. Don M. Huber, Emeritus Professor of Plant Pathology at Purdue University, speak in Eastern Ontario in February of 2011. The next talk was his presentation at the AcresUSA Conference in Springfield, IL in December of 2013. Apart from the addition of a few slides depicting select events of the past few years, the content was much the same. The people in this story are both me: the person I was, and the person I am now.
Then and Now
In early 2011 I was a big proponent of organic agriculture, a staunch opponent of GMOs, and Monsanto was enemy #1. Huber’s description of studies showing the deleterious effects of glyphosate on plant health confirmed my suspicions about RoundUp and herbicides in general. His speculation about a “new pathogen” and its devastating effects on plant and animal health, although frustratingly vague on specifics, fit right into my paradigm concerning the evils of GMOs. I couldn’t wait to see the details of “work on a variety of aspects” that he promised would be published “in about a month.”
I followed the story for another couple of months, still waiting for more data to be published, then he pretty much dropped off my radar. Leading up to his Acres presentation, I heard that he was still on the lecture circuit, and still saying pretty much the same things he had been saying in 2011. In the meantime, however, I had discovered a community of independent scientists on Twitter who had taught me a lot about the process of scientific research and who had very patiently and logically dispelled many of my misconceptions regarding GMOs. I walked into his presentation in December with a skeptical attitude, prepared to look deeper, and ready to ask questions.
What I saw and heard shocked me. I don’t intend to go into a detailed analysis of Huber’s claims here, though I will provide links – I want to talk about how he tells his story, and the impact it has.
Many of the studies (including a number of his own) that he cites on nutrient-disease and herbicide-nutrient-disease interactions have been published in peer-reviewed journals and have some merit. (For more detailed discussion see here and here.) However, these studies don’t tell the whole story, and they aren’t put into context – there are many other studies with conflicting results, and Huber gives no indication of whether or not herbicides other than glyphosate have similar effects, and to what extent. I’ll never be a fan of herbicides (my support for organic agriculture has never waned), but it would be nice to have more context before condemning one particular product over all others.
Worse yet, Huber intersperses, correlates, and extrapolates this valid data with information that has very little, if any, scientific value. He begins by noting that correlation does not equal causation, but then he’s off to the races with a blinding series of correlations, peppered with references to the results of a few real studies, to the point where most listeners lose track of the initial caveat. For instance, he’ll show the results of a study, then, as a supposed illustration, he’ll display aerial photos taken of neighboring cornfields during the 2012 drought. Claiming that one field is non-GMO and other is GMO, he’ll point to the superior appearance of the first, ignoring the fact any number of other factors could account for the difference between two fields on two separate farms, despite their geographic proximity.
Huber also isn’t above using discredited science and non-science to bolster his claims and incite fear. The Seralini rat experiments and Carman/Vlieger pig study figure prominently in his presentation. So, too, does the “shocking corn comparison” that supposedly demonstrated high levels of formaldehyde and practically non-existent levels of nutrients in GMO corn. During his Acres presentation, he presented these results and stated “there is zero tolerance for formaldehyde in food products.” A minute later he referred to the high formaldehyde levels and commented, “and people are eating these corn flakes.” Amid gasps from the audience, my hand shot up and I asked, “if there’s zero tolerance, how is it getting into our food?” “Well, I don’t know that it is,” he admitted, before trailing off with a “but….” My next question was if the study had ever been replicated, and if so, had the results ever been published. “No” he stated, “it’s only been a year, and you people [referring to the anti-GMO audience] are the only ones who want to know.” It didn’t seem right to me at the time, but it wasn’t until recently that I learned just how wrong he was.
The highlight of Huber’s presentations is his description of a new menace that is supposedly having devastating effects on plant, animal, and human health, causing, among other things, reproductive failure. But even after a number of years, he can’t describe whether it’s a virus, a fungus, or a prion; if it has DNA or not – he’s now taken to calling it an “entity.” Needless to say, there’s a great deal of skepticism in the scientific community. The claims he makes for this “entity” are simply not supported by our current understanding of the way the world works. And although I’m usually the first to point out that science and our comprehension of the world is constantly evolving, I’m forced to admit that in this case the explanation is vastly more likely to be a number of mundane causes, rather than one “smoking gun” that will turn the world upside-down.
To make matters worse, Huber has refused to share his data, the organism, or his methods for culturing the organism with the broader scientific community. He has published nothing about it that could be subject to peer review, and he’s not allowing other scientists access to the information they need to prove or disprove his hypothesis. If this pathogen is responsible for all the terrible things he’s linking it to, why wouldn’t he want as many scientists as possible working to understand it? Having already read about the situation, I approached Huber following his talk to ask him this question. At first, Huber replied that he had been unable to interest anyone in the US on working on it – “they were prohibited” or “they turned us down.” Then he shifted tactics and said that he had been betrayed by a collaborator who went on to say that it was “all a hoax”, so he had moved all the research overseas. There were a “number of people working on it, all over the world, ” he said, “they just can’t be visible.” When I asked if others might be help (knowing that they had offered), he replied “that situation turned on us” referring to a story of how the USDA had offered to sequence it, then allowed the sample to languish in their labs until it was too old. There was zero acknowledgement of the offer made by Kevin Folta only weeks earlier.
What bothered me most of all was the audience’s reaction. By the end of his talk, describing his fears for the health of the next generation, Huber had choked up and was almost crying. Many in the audience reacted the same way – scared silly, weeping in fear for the future. Huber is soft-spoken, grandfatherly – he exudes humility and engenders respect. He’s undoubtedly done some good, valuable work in his career. But don’t be mistaken – whatever has lead him here, his current path is deceptive, misleading, and irresponsible. Unless and until he can stick to the science and offer solid evidence for his extreme claims, he must be called to account for the way he is scaring people, and his tour of terror must end.
Editor’s Note: Originally published at The Fanning Mill.
Written by Guest Expert
Rob Wallbridge is an organic farmer in Western Quebec, Canada. He is also a father, extensionist, writer, speaker, and rabble-rouser. He advocates for high-quality organic food and informed communities in agriculture and beyond.