GMO expert discusses new organism linked to health problems

Community members at the Cropland Policy Advisory Group meeting
Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly

A crop consultant told a committee reviewing the use of
genetically engineered plants on open space Wednesday about a new organism that
scientists believe is connected to the health problems being seen in plants and
animals exposed to the herbicide Roundup.

Agronomist Michael McNeill, owner of Ag Advisory, Ltd., in
Algona, Iowa, was the only one of the three experts who testified at the Aug.
10 Cropland Policy Advisory Group meeting who was critical of genetically
modified organisms (GMOs).

The other two, crop consultant Kent Davis of Johnstown-based
Crop Quest and Philip Westra, a professor of weed science at Colorado State
University, both defended the use of GMOs and glyphosate, the main ingredient
in Roundup, saying that they will be needed to feed an exploding world
population, and that alternatives would be worse for the environment.

“There is a lot of data showing that genetically engineered
crops are improving environmental quality in the world,” Davis said.

The meeting, held at the Plaza Longmont Hotel Conference
Center, attracted about 190 people, including a vocal anti-GMO contingent. The
advisory group has been meeting since February to help county officials decide
how to handle requests from farmers who want to plant GMOs on county-owned open
space. Genetically modified corn has been allowed on those lands since 2003,
but a 2009 controversy over a request to plant GM sugar beets prompted the
county commissioners to send the issue back to the drawing board.

Responding to questions from advisory group members, McNeill
said he and other researchers have found the new organism in six states and a
variety of materials, including corn, oak trees, livestock, eggs, meat, milk,
semen, soybeans and placenta tissue. The organism appears to be more prevalent
in materials that have been exposed to glyphosate, he told the group.

The new organism seems to be associated with sudden death
syndrome in soybeans, oak scorch in oak trees and Goss’s wilt in corn, McNeill
said. He added that the group of researchers has approached the U.S. Department
of Agriculture about the organism and is seeking federal research funding to
explore it further.

“It’s created quite a stir with many people,” McNeill said,
adding that federal granting agencies don’t seem convinced of the need to study
it yet. “I think they’re looking for reasons to do it.”

In response to a question from advisory group member Dea
Sloan, McNeill said it is rare to see a new organism that infects both plants
and animals. He also said that while tests have confirmed that it is indeed a
living organism, the research has not yet undergone peer review.

Westra, who said he is associate editor of an academic
journal, pointed out that until research is subjected to the scrutiny of other
scientists and published by a reputable journal, it has not passed muster.

Advisory group member Richard Andrews asked whether research
at universities on the possible negative health effects of GMOs and glyphosate
is being stymied by large corporations in the GMO industry. Westra replied that
academic freedom is alive and well at universities, and faculty have discretion
to research whatever they want. McNeill, on the other hand, pointed out that
when he buys seed from a company, he signs an agreement saying that he won’t
research that seed. If he were to share such research publicly, he said, it
would cost him a significant amount of money.

When asked if he is anti-GMO, McNeill said he believes GMOs
have their place, but that the way they are currently being used — and overused
— is problematic. He said he spends a significant amount of his time improving
the health and nutrition of his clients’ GMO crops, addressing the side effects
of glyphosate use. In response to questions about the differences between Iowa
in Colorado when it comes to glyphosate use, soil, climate, precipitation and
crop rotations, McNeill acknowledged that there are differences, but that he
believes some of the same techniques he has used in Iowa would work in
Colorado. All three experts agreed that rotating crops and using multiple approaches
to pest and weed management — not just using glyphosate every year — is key to
successful farming.

In response to a question from advisory group member Ewell
Culbertson, Westra and Kent said they do not receive funding from companies
like Monsanto that sell GMOs and products like glyphosate.

Advisory group member Keith Bateman asked the experts if it
is feasible for organic and conventional farmers to continue to operate
side-by-side. All three said it’s possible as long as each side respects the

McNeill noted that his own farm has both organic and
conventional sections, “And I haven’t gotten into too many fights with myself.
Being a good neighbor is most important.”

While no public comment was taken at the Aug. 10 meeting, on
Sept. 1, the advisory group is scheduled to hold a public input session at 5
p.m. at the Parks and Open Space offices at 5201 St. Vrain Rd. in Longmont.