Genetically Modified Canola Goes Feral. A New Superweed?



One of the primary concerns with transgenic (aka genetically modified) crops is the risk of genetic contamination, i.e. the transfer of engineered genes to wild versions of the same plant. The corporations involved in genetic engineering, such as Monsanto and Bayer CropScience, have time and again assured regulators and the public that this risk is minimal. Still, the government mandates “buffer zones” around such crops’ plantings and the corporations who sell the seeds have created their own protocols to ensure this kind of thing never happens.

Well, surprise! It’s happened. Big time.

Scientists from the University of Arkansas announced at the Ecological Society of America annual meeting the results of a study that showed genetically engineered pesticide-resistant canola growing like a weed in North Dakota. They found that up to 80 percent of wild canola in their sample from various North Dakota roadsides contained genes that conferred resistance to either glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready pesticide) or gluphosinate (from Bayer’s LibertyLink seeds).

But it gets better, er, worse. The scientists also found wild canola with both properties. And as lead scientist Cynthia Sagers observed in an accompanying news report, “these feral populations of canola have been part of the landscape for several generations” — plant generations, mind you, not human generations. Still, this is not a new phenomenon. It’s true that biotech companies do sell seeds with multiple forms of pesticide resistance, so-called “stacked trait” seeds. But these wild canola plants managed this interbreeding feat all by their lonesome.

So, these genetically engineered plants — which, when out in the wild, are considered weeds — are cross-pollinating and transferring “alien” genes that confer pesticide resistance. The next step in the chain is for the canola to interbreed with other related weeds. Suddenly, the prospect of our nation’s bread basket infested with superweeds becomes very, very real.

Monsanto issued a statement that didn’t exactly address the issue at hand:

Tom Nickson, head of environmental policy at Monsanto in St Louis, Missouri, told Nature, “Those familiar with canola know that these plants are readily found on roadsides and in areas near farmers’ fields. This was true prior to the introduction of GM canola, and a common source is seed that has scattered during harvest and fallen off a truck during transport.”

Okay. No one is accusing Monsanto of culpability in the scourge of roadside canola. It’s the utter failure of the company’s safety protocols that’s the issue. Time and time again, Monsanto and its ilk have promised that this sort of thing would never happen; that the systems in place to prevent it are foolproof. Well, I think we know now who the fools are …

A report last year suggested that farmers routinely ignore planting requirements and buffer zones when it comes to genetically engineered crops. And now we see the result. Perhaps this news will give the USDA pause as it considers whether to allow Monsanto’s GM alfalfa to be planted this spring, which was recently halted by a federal judge for insufficient protections against exactly this kind of phenomenon.

Either way, what we’re seeing is what some would have considered a worst-case scenario a few years ago — transgenic plants growing in the wild and creating versions that don’t currently exist, even in a lab. Scared yet?

cross-posted from Grist with permission

Photo: Aerial Photography

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  1. Monday, August 9th, 2010
    Monsanto actually said more than the few quotes that were attributed to Tom Nickson. We provided some context on the Monsanto blog here: http://www.monsantoblog.com/2010/08/06/roadside-canola-survey/

    This particular "feral" canola is only a problem if you are using Roundup to control it -- otherwise to you and me it's just like any other canola. It's perfectly manageable by mowing it, which is what most highway departments do.

    Contrary to Tom's writing, Monsanto never said this wouldn't happen. In fact, if you read the blog post I linked to, it was very well known this could happen at the time it was approved by the U.S. and Canada. Both regulatory agencies considered the possibility that canola would end up in places besides farmer's fields, and both said it would be manageable and was not an environmental concern.

    Mica Veihman
    Monsanto Company
  2. Foxhunter
    Tuesday, August 10th, 2010
    Wow, Mica. You must be a highly compensated spox for Monsanto or you have a great internal PR department.

    You cannot minimize the potential dangers of widespread GM crop usage and native invasion by simply stating, 'can't use glyphosates, then just MOW!!'. That is the most obtuse response imaginable.

    The problem is the invasiveness of a non-native species and an inability to control. We don't want the genetically modified canola genie to get out of the bottle and in turn, crowd out other native species and less-invasive erosion controlling plants.

    Oops.

    Looks like that has already occurred as predicted by many experts, and apparently, by Monsanto.

    The over usage of GM crops and silly trade have already brought us the resistent super weed (aka PigWeed) in the south and parts west and north. Now this.

    I know the stated goal of any corporation is bottom line, but what is so difficult about adding a smidgeon of good Earth stewardship to that mantra? I don't care if regulatory agencies of every country on the planet agreed to the usage of your GM canola product. If interal research shows that it has harmful side effects and could cross into the wild, then why use it?

    I guess the BP oil disaster and the relationship of MMS and big oil explain that away -

    1) Develop maringally safe product or business practice.
    2) Get reg agencies to rubber stamp.
    3) PROFIT!!!

    Years later, admit error but only after 1099DIV's are distributed and parachutes have been deployed.
  3. t
    Tuesday, August 10th, 2010
    ooga booga, a superweed! yeah, canola that roundup cant kill. big deal. and its somehow going to crossbreed with other species of weed, which arent named of course, but you can be sure theyre out there! scared yet?!?!

    of course monsanto is pure evil and scum of the earth so im not trying to defend them, just trying to point out youre lying and illiteracy of facts does nothing to help your cause.
  4. Mario
    Tuesday, August 10th, 2010
    Get GM's out of Nature where they do not belong! Monsanto is destroying Nature as we know it.
  5. Steve
    Wednesday, August 11th, 2010
    Jeeze, I'm just a random reader, but it looks like nobody from the blog bothered to reply to that corporate shill's comment. I'm certainly much less an expert on the GMO issue than the people who publish this blog, but even I know that Mica's argument that this is "not an environmental concern" is bullshit!

    For one, it makes things even more difficult for farmers who want to grow organic, or other non-transgenic canola. Now they not only have to worry about direct contamination from a neighboring farm's GMO field, but now, even if they're isolated from any transgenic farms, they have to worry about this weed making its way to their fields and contaminating their crop.

    But people like Mica don't care about that, and they'll put out whatever PR spin they can in order to keep the profits rolling in.
  6. Thursday, August 12th, 2010
    GM is a technology with lots of potential but it MUST be used in conjunction with a rigorous biosafety protocol: companies which flout that basic rule are creating huge environmental issues. Following biosafety procedures should be mandatory and should be enforced by the government. And really, mowing is the answer?? No wonder Monsanto is so resented...