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Scientists question claims in biotech letter

DES MOINES, Iowa — The widespread Internet posting of a letter by a retired Purdue University researcher who says he has linked genetically modified corn and soybeans to crop diseases and abortions and infertility in livestock has raised concern among scientists the public will believe his unsupported claim is true.

The letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been posted on dozens of websites ranging from the Huffington Post to obscure gardening and food blogs, generating discussion on message boards about the controversial topic of genetically modified crops and their potential effect on animals and humans.

But other scientists say they have no way to verify professor emeritus Don Huber's claims because he won't provide evidence to back them up.

"People in the scientific community have at times made outlandish claims but it's been based on research that was flawed in some way, but at least the data was provided to be analyzed and critiqued," said Bob Hartzler, an Iowa State agronomy professor who called the letter "extremely unusual, especially coming from the scientific community."

Huber, 76, wrote the letter to Vilsack in January, warning of a new organism he claims has been found in corn and soybeans modified to resist the weed killer Roundup. Huber wrote that the organism could lead to a "general collapse of our critical agriculture infrastructure" and further approval of Roundup Ready crops "could be a calamity."

He told the Associated Press the organism that concerned him was found in much higher concentrations in corn and soybeans grown from so-called Roundup Ready seeds than in grains grown from conventional seed, although the samples of conventional crops tested were too small to get a reliable result.

Huber believes the pathogen has made genetically modified soybeans more susceptible to sudden death syndrome and corn to Goss' wilt. He also claims it's linked to spontaneous abortions and infertility in livestock that eat feed generated from those crops.

The USDA said: "It has been confirmed that no letter addressed to Secretary Vilsack from Dr. Huber has been received directly by USDA. The only copy we received was forwarded by a third party, and we do not respond to third-party letters."

Monsanto, the St. Louis-based company that developed Roundup-resistant seeds, said in a statement it was "not aware of any reliable studies that demonstrate Roundup Ready crops are more susceptible to certain diseases."

Huber's letter identifies himself as a retired Purdue professor, and it has left the Indiana university known for its agriculture programs in the uncomfortable position of being linked to research it can't verify.

"This is not Purdue research being carried on by people at Purdue University," said Peter Goldsbrough, director of the university's plant pathology department.

Goldsbrough said Huber declined to provide evidence supporting his claims or the names of his research partners.

"If someone is making a new discovery, they normally want someone to know about it and if this was an important environmental or agricultural problem, you would want to engage other people in finding what the causes of the problems are," he said. "I don't know what would be gained by not sharing."

Scientists question claims in biotech letter 04/01/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 1, 2011 10:04pm]
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