Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Canadian GM canola has escaped into wilds of North Dakota
By Margaret Munro
October 5, 2011
Genetically modified canola has escaped from the farm and is thriving in the wild across North Dakota, according to a study that indicates there are plenty of novel man-made genes crossing the Canada-U.S. border.
GM canola was found growing everywhere from ditches to parking lots, the scientists report, with some of the highest densities along a trucking route into Canada.
“That’s where the most intense canola production is and it’s also the road that goes to the canola processing plants across the border,” said ecologist Cynthia Sagers of the University of Arkansas, referring to a canola plant in Altona, Man.
Her study stopped at the border, but Canadian research also have found “escaped” GM canola is becoming common on the Canadian prairies, and swapping man-made genes in the wild.
“Biology doesn’t know any borders,” said Rene Van Acker at the University of Guelph, who has done extensive research on the extent and behaviour of escaped GM crops in Manitoba.
For the study published Wednesday, Sagers and her colleagues drove across North Dakota and stopped every eight kilometres to see what was growing. At almost half of the 634 stops they found genetically modified canola.
At some locations there were thousands of GM plants growing. “That was a shock to us,” Sagers said. At other spots, the GM canola, which was engineered to withstand herbicides that kill weeds, was the only thing growing.
“In some places along the road where department of transportation had sprayed for weeds, the canola was blooming brilliantly,” Sagers said.
Of 288 canola plants the researchers tested, 231 were transgenic or genetically modified.
Perhaps most significant, they said, is the fact that two of plants had combinations of herbicide resistance that had not been developed commercially.
“That suggests to us there is breeding going on, either in the field or in these roadside populations, to create new combinations of traits,” said Sagers.
“In terms of evolutionary biology it’s pretty amazing.”
She says the findings raise questions about whether the escaped or “feral” GM canola might pass on man-made genes to wild species like field mustard, which is an agricultural pest.
She and her colleagues said the study, published in the journal PLoS One, also raises questions about whether “adequate oversight and monitoring protocols” are in place to track the environmental impact of biotech products.
“It is conceivably a very large problem,” said Sagers.
Crop and forage species now cover more than a quarter of the earth’s land surface and “yet we know relatively little about how domesticated plants influence wild ones,” said Sagers.
Van Acker said it would be “extremely, extremely rare” for the man-made genes to move into weeds.
But he said the study, like similar research done in Canada, does raise red flags over plans to grow pharmaceutical drugs and industrial oils in GM plants. Such crops would have to be “confined” and kept out of the food system, said Van Acker, “and that starts to worry me.”
The study also points to a growing problem for organic and traditional farmers who do not want to grow GM crops but now have to deal with escaped GM canola finding its way onto their farms.
Van Acker said it is increasingly difficult and costly for Canadian farmers to grow non-GM, or organic, crops.
Sagers agreed and noted that GM escapees are also a problem for farmers because they were engineered to withstand widely used herbicides.
“One of the concerns for farmers in North Dakota is that the herbicide resistant crops will become weeds themselves,” said Sagers.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which regulates and approves GM crops grown in Canada, said by email Wednesday that it is satisfied that the GM crops escaping farms pose no risk.
“GM crops have been safely grown in Canada for the past 20 years,” CFIA’s media office said. “High level of acceptance of these crops by farmers indicates that farmers value enhanced options for the management of weeds and pests that such crops provide.”
It said assessments, done by CFIA before the GM crops were approved for use, “concluded that herbicide tolerant canola varieties authorized for cultivation in Canada are neither more invasive nor more persistent than unmodified commercial counterparts.
“Presence of herbicide tolerant genes does not confer any competitive advantage to plants unless the specific herbicides are used.”