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USDA Downplays Own Scientist's Research on Ill Effects of Monsanto Herbicide

What would happen if a USDA scientist discovered that one of the most commonly used pesticides on the planet with a reputation for having saved millions of tons of US soil from erosion was -- rather than a soil savior -- a soil killer?

That, to quote a certain paranormal expert, would be bad. And yet, it's true.

This news came to the fore thanks to a recently published must-read article from Reuters on how government regulators are "dropping the ball" on agricultural biotechnology. It begins with the story of USDA scientist Dr. Robert Kremer. Kremer has spent the last fifteen years looking at Monsanto's blockbuster broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate (aka RoundUp), the most commonly used pesticide in the world and the companion to Monsanto's possibly monopolistic RoundupReady lines of genetically engineered seeds.

While exact figures are a closely guarded secret thanks to the USDA's refusal to update its pesticide use database after 2007, estimates suggest upwards of 200 million pounds of glyphosate were dumped on fields and farms in the US in 2008 alone. That's almost double the amount used in 2005.

Glyphosate has a reputation as the "safest" of all the agricultural herbicides and has become the primary means of weed control in industrial agriculture. While being the best of an extremely nasty bunch may be the faintest of praise, the USDA relies on this perception, which has been fueled by industry and government research indicating that the chemical dissipates quickly and shows low toxicity (as poisons go, that is) to humans.

The claim of "millions of tons of soil saved" relates to the soil that would have otherwise been lost to erosion without glyphosate's central role in chemical no-till farming techniques. Indeed, experts such as Dr. Michael Shannon, a program director at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, as well as other USDA scientists, make this anti-erosion claim the core argument in favor of the widespread use of the chemical.

Even so, glyphosate has been under attack from several quarters of late. Research indicates that, while glyphosate on its own may be relatively "safe," it is actually quite toxic in combination with the other (supposedly "inert") ingredients in commercial preparations of the herbicide, i.e. the stuff that farmers actually spray on their fields.

And of course, there is the frightening spread of superweeds that glyphosate can no longer kill. It's to the point that thousands of acres in the South have been abandoned to resistant strains of giant pigweed.

Enter Dr. Kremer. His work, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of European Agronomy, further tarnishes glyphosate's golden status. He has found that glyphosate's side-effects in the ground are far more severe than previously thought. As he described it to me, the use of glyphosate causes:

 - damage to beneficial microbes in the soil increasing the likelihood of infection of a crop by soil pathogens 
 - interference with nutrient uptake by the plant 
 - reduced efficiency of symbiotic nitrogen fixation 
 - overall lower-than-expected plant productivity

Dr. Kremer has even helpfully provided a set of recommendations for farmers who use glyphosate or who plant Monsanto's RoundUpReady seeds. According to Dr. Kremer, the worst of the problems can be avoided if 1) farmers only plant RoundupReady crops every other year in the same field, 2) come up with alternate crop residue management techniques and 3) plant cover crops "to revitalize soil biological and ecological processes as well as improve other aspects of soil quality."

A USDA scientist wouldn't recommend measures like this if he weren't convinced his results merited it. From the Reuters article:

"This could be something quite big. We might be setting up a huge problem," said Kremer, who expressed alarm that regulators were not paying enough attention to the potential risks from biotechnology on the farm, including his own research

 ..."Science is not being considered in policy setting and deregulation," said Kremer. "This research is important. We need to be vigilant."