Bouncing down a dirt road a couple of summers ago, past a gentle patchwork of barnyards and soybean fields in central Iowa, farmer Kent Friedrichsen strained over the steering wheel of his van and stared through the windshield in dismay.
His soybean fields, where he'd used seeds developed by Monsanto Co. and sprayed with its popular glyphosate weed killer Roundup Ready, were littered with yellowed leaves and dead plants. Four days earlier, the plants had been waist high and emerald green.
Nearby, in fields where he had planted seeds that weren't genetically engineered and didn't use glyphosates, the soybean plants were still healthy and lush.
Farmers call this "sudden death syndrome," a plant disease that has plagued the country's heartland and the nation's estimated $36.8-billion soybean industry. Scientists, who first spotted the disease in Arkansas in 1971 — more than 20 years before Monsanto introduced its Roundup Ready soybeans in the U.S. — blame damp weather and a fungus that rots the plant roots.
But, Friedrichsen said, "for years, I've wondered whether there wasn't something else."
Now, despite mountains of research to the contrary, one soil scientist is roiling the agricultural world with claims that there might be some truth to the farmer's unease.
Don M. Huber, an emeritus professor at Purdue University who has done research for Monsanto on chemical herbicides, alleges that he has found a link between genetically modified crops and crop diseases and infertility in livestock: an "unknown organism" he and other researchers claim to have discovered last summer in Midwestern fields like Friedrichsen's.
"This organism appears NEW to science!" Huber wrote in a letter in January to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about the matter. He added, "I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen is unique and of a high-risk status. In layman's terms, it should be treated as an emergency."
Huber, 76, asked in the letter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate.
A USDA spokesman said Huber's letter was forwarded to its correspondence office Friday. "As part of normal protocol, Mr. Huber's letter will receive a response," the agency said in a statement.
Though the science behind Huber's claims is far from settled — and Huber has refused to make public any evidence of his claims — his letter has intensified the battle between those who believe technology is the only way to feed a ballooning global population and those who are increasingly fearful that biotechnology is resulting in food that is nutritionally lacking and environmentally dangerous.
This year the Obama administration announced several decisions that have generated concern in the organic farming industry. After conducting a court-ordered environmental impact review, Vilsack approved the planting of genetically modified alfalfa. (The USDA also approved a type of corn that can be used to make ethanol and gave the OK to plant genetically engineered sugar beets in certain situations.)
Alfalfa, like the soybean, is a legume and a key food source for livestock and dairy cattle. To the organic farming industry, the fear is one of possible contamination, in the form of seeds or pollen from genetically engineered crops being picked up by the wind, bees or birds and falling onto nearby organic fields. Such contamination can be devastating to organic farmers, cheese makers and dairy producers, who say even the smallest presence of genetically engineered seed can result in domestic retailers and overseas buyers refusing to buy their products.
Huber's letter was leaked onto the Internet in February and was posted on scores of websites including the Huffington Post and gardening blogs. It also catapulted Huber into the spotlight.
Slender, with a full head of gray hair and a quiet voice, Huber fits the Midwestern farming archetype. He's been married for 52 years and has 11 children and 36 grandchildren. When he spoke to a crowd of 80 farmers and University of Nebraska researchers about his claims last month, Huber opened his speech with a quote from the Book of Isaiah: "All flesh is grass."
The letter, however, does not read like the writings of a man with decades of experience as a plant pathologist. Peppered with capital letters and exclamation points, Huber's letter calls the alleged discovery the "microscopic pathogen."
In an interview, he called his finding "it." Huber said this is all he knows: "It's a life form."
It could be innocuous, Huber said. It may have been around for a long time, even if scientists never knew it.
Huber declined to say publicly who his fellow researchers are, saying they are worried about professional backlash by their academic employers who received research funding from the biotechnology industry. Peers wondered if it was a fraud.
The letter sparked a response from Monsanto. The company, contending that industry and academic research had disproved other allegations Huber has previously made about its products, posted a statement on its website challenging the letter's claims. The company said it wouldn't ignore the letter because "we feel it is important for us to look into allegations involving our products. Our statement and subsequent conversations focus on requests to see the data used in drafting the letter, as decades of farmer use and data from numerous sources show a very different reality."
An official from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and researchers at Iowa State University have tried since last fall to get access to plant samples, but to no avail. Instead, Huber and his team have opted to talk to the media — rather than fellow scientists, said Robin Pruisner, entomologist for the Iowa agriculture department.
"They're telling these horror stories with nothing to back it up," Pruisner said. "We're arguing about something we can't see and they won't let us see."
The American Phytopathological Society, of which Huber is a member, issued a statement distancing the group from him. Other leading agricultural research centers have dismissed Huber's claims as being far-fetched or irresponsible.
"It's simply ridiculous," said Peter Goldsbrough, head of Purdue's botany and plant pathology department, where Huber is an emeritus professor. "If this is true, and you can prove it, that's a one-way ticket to a Nobel Prize. Where's the evidence? What's he hiding?"
But Huber's supporters say he is a gadfly the federal government can't afford to ignore and are calling on the Agriculture Department to ban farmers this spring from planting genetically modified alfalfa, typically a key food source for livestock.
Even if Huber's discovery later turns out to be the scientific equivalent of junk, there are mounting concerns that the government approved genetically engineered alfalfa too quickly and without doing enough research about potential long-term effects on the environment, said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior plant pathologist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Gurian-Sherman said the fears driving Huber's fellow researchers to remain anonymous may not be trivial. In 2009, a group of 26 entomologists —all in favor of technology, most from universities with large agricultural programs — filed a complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency saying that biotech firms were preventing academic researchers from fully studying the effectiveness and environmental impact of genetically engineered crops.
"As public funding has been drying up in the agricultural sciences, industry has been filling the gap. Public-sector scientists are getting more and more money, and there's a strong perception that if they say anything negative about the biotechnology companies, they could lose their funding and essentially be blackballed," Gurian-Sherman said.
Even some critics agree that the controversy has at least one upside.
"He has gotten people to think and talk about sudden death syndrome," said David Wright, research director for the Iowa Soybean Assn. "SDS is a problem that needs additional research. Scientists challenge each other all the time and that's a good thing. That's how we get solutions."
It was the lowly soybean that was the first staple crop to be successfully engineered and widely planted, thanks to Monsanto. In an effort to bolster sales of its herbicide glyphosate, or Roundup, Monsanto turned to its laboratories to create crops that would tolerate the weedkiller. Instead of trying to alter soy's genes, they layered on new ones.
It helped make Monsanto huge and extend its influence to consumers: About 75% of processed food on the country's grocery shelves — such as margarine and chicken soup — contains engineered ingredients.
Despite hundreds of studies that show genetically engineered seeds and crops are safe, the technology unnerves some farmers and a growing segment of consumers who pay attention to how their food is produced. Those concerns have mounted as some recent studies have found that the widespread use of genetically engineered crops and pesticides such as Roundup Ready has led to so-called super weeds that are resistant to the pesticide. That in turn has forced farmers in the South and elsewhere to spray their land with increasingly toxic chemicals and hire laborers to walk the rows and pull weeds by hand.
For soybeans, sudden death syndrome has been a serious issue in the Midwest in the last two years. Part of the problem is climate change, said Xiao Bing Yang, a leading expert on the disease at Iowa State University. Soil that is too moist, coming after too cool of a spring, can be a breeding ground for the fungus Fusarium solani f.sp. glycine. It's the fungus that causes sudden death syndrome, scientists say.
The effect on soybeans can be dire. At best, a farmer could lose 10% of his crop. At worst, 90% could be wiped out. Once the fungus is in a field, it can remain for years and cause havoc when the environmental conditions are right.
Last year, after a chilly spring and a very wet summer, soybean sudden death syndrome raced across the Midwest. The hardest hit was Iowa: Yang estimated last summer that up to half of the state's fields might be infected in varying degrees. The USDA warned in August that "the amount of acreage is becoming a concern."
Rumors of quick fixes spread rapidly across the farming community, Wright said. "None of it was based on science," he said. "It was a mess."
Scientific curiosity about that outbreak, Huber said, prompted him and a group of researchers to tromp across soybean fields in Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois to take soil and plant samples. Some of the fields were planted with seeds using Monsanto's technology and sprayed with glyphosate.
They assumed they were seeing a normal sudden-death-syndrome outbreak, Huber said. The team took samples from a number of fields, he said, and sent the samples to a researcher who had access to an electron microscope. The researcher looked and, Huber said, saw "it."
Huber said he doesn't have anything personally against Monsanto.
"If I'm wrong, OK. What's the worst that can happen?" Huber said. "If I'm not, then we find out what it is."