First Strong Evidence of Genetically Modified Plants Growing in Wild Found in US

Field

Recently, scientists have collected the first strong evidence found in the US of established GM canola in the wild.  The results will be presented today at the Ecological Society of America’s 95th Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh by researchers from the University of Arkansas, led by Meredith G. Schafer.

Learn about the findings and possible repercussions here.

Short background on genetically modified plants

The topic of genetically modified (GM) plants is a hot one.  GM plants are thought have the possibility to provide higher yields and a more stable food supply for our growing population.  However, research is conflicting to whether these statements are true, and generally shows that if there is an increase in yield, it is a modest one.  The threat to biodiversity is a major concern with GM plants.  GM plants are also seen as a threat to fair competition, since most GM seeds are patented.

Canola (or rapeseed) is a North American cash crop grown for the oil in its seeds.  A large percentage of the canola grown in North America is genetically modified to be tolerant to herbicide.  The idea is that farmers can spray their crops with herbicide to kill the weeds, but the canola withstands it and prospers, making farming simpler.

The results of the study

The scientists examined land along 5400 km roads in the North Dakota and tested a sampling of 406 canola plants.  Of the 406 plant collected, 347 of them tested positive for at least one the two proteins that make them tolerant to herbicides, which is a genetically modified trait.

Currently, GM canola is manufactured to have only one of the two proteins.  The proteins correspond to resistance to two different herbicides manufactured by different companies.  However, some plants in the study were found to have both of the proteins.  This is evidence that GM plants are reproducing and have established themselves outside of the agricultural setting.

GM plants outside agriculture are a possible threat to biodiversity and possibly health

Much like invasive species of insects or fish that are brought over by ship and end up decimating native populations by their sudden introduction into the wild, GM plants have the same potential.  They did not arise slowly and naturally out of the ecosystem to fill a niche, rather they bombard existing life with their herbicide-resistant super-powers, plus whatever unknown traits their modified genes carry.  If they have the capacity to cross-breed with other plants, they could become dominant.

If GM plants are prolific, a potential problem with this is that, in the US, roadsides are sprayed with herbicides to keep growth under control for road safety.  If there is herbicide resistant canola growing along the roads, the herbicides sprayed will be ineffective.  This could possibly lead to the development of stronger herbicides (probably more toxic ones) to manage the spreading GM plants – a sort of chemical/genetics arms race.  Given the strong correlation of pesticides and herbicides to diseases, this is something that should be avoided.

It is also possible that GM plants are not a huge threat to biodiversity.  They are highly domesticated and may not last in the wild.  Since roadsides are sprayed with pesticides, the GM canola has an advantage over non-GM canola there; however, in the real wild, there is no herbicide, and non-GM plants may have the advantage.

What will Monsanto do?  (WWMD?)

Monsanto is the corporation that produces one of the versions GM canola found in the study.  They generally have a reputation for dominating the food supply industry and have gone as far as suing individual farmers who unintentionally had GM canola turn up on their land for patent infringement.

Will Monsanto sue the US government for unlicensed GM seed along the roads?  or is this part of their plan, and will Monsanto have a new herbicide ready to sell for roadside canola superweeds?  Regardless, they will probably profit off of this finding.

References: http://eco.confex.com/eco/2010/techprogram/P27199.HTM via EurekAlert!

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons by justaprairieboy

Written by jeannie

18 Comments

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  1. Leaping into new technologies without thoroughly thinking them out and considering the worst case scenario…just in case. Playing around with our food supplies without any real understanding of the potential downstream. Contributing to the continuing contamination of the food chain by encouraging the use of more pesticides and herbicides that only the modified crops can withstand and not considering wind drift. All for more money.

    This seems to be a perfect storm in the making. Do we get to hold Monsanto and others financially and socially responsible if it all goes wrong?

  2. Take a deep breath. Weed species were developing herbicide tolerance long before GM technology. If the canola is actually herbicide tolerant it is tolerant to glyphosate not all herbicides. Herbicides such as 2,4-D that have been around for years will kill canola so it isn't a big deal. And as the post suggested, this doesn't represent a threat to biodiversity because glyphosate tolerance provides no reproductive advantage in the wild.

    Herbicide use has dropped since the introduction of herbicide tolerant traits and glyphosate is one of the most benign herbicides going. It targets only the plant's photosynthesis mechanism and it is inactivated by soil contact.

    GM crops are and have been intensely scrutinized by multiple regulatory agencies around the world and are being grown on all six continents where farming takes place. In 2009 GM crops were planted on 330 million acres in 25 countries by 14 million farmers. About 90% of all biotech crops are planted by farmers in poor and developing nations because of the tremendous advantages provided by the technology.

    The U.S. National Research Council issued a report last spring on a study that it conducted to evaluate the impact of GM technology on U.S. farmers and noted "(m)any U.S. farmers who grow genetically engineered (GE) crops are realizing substantial economic and environmental benefits – such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields – compared with conventional crops."

    The world's population is projected to be 6 billion by 2020 and 9 billion by 2050. Over that same period we will continue to lose land to urbanization and desertification and will suffer increasing issues with water quality and quantity. If you want to think about the long term start thinking about how to feed that many people without the use of biotechnology.

  3. Monsanto Blogs- http://www.monsantoblog.com/2010/07/19/hybrids-vs… is a decent place to stay up-to-date on what they’re thinking about and the apologies they believe. and one has to admit that the company is responsible for many improvements in the food chain.

    BUT, they have been and are purposely misleading about many important facts, such as the terminator seed. while they claim to be doing nothing further on this subject(they have sold off the IP to another company)so they say they are not responsible for any more developments in the field, this amounts to a lie, the company is mostly owned by Monsanto, and has many of the same figures on the board of directors. so, they claim to be no part of the research while maintaining a significant presence. this was done because of public perception of the dangers of terminator seeds, to protect shareholders from potential suits.

    I have no doubt whatsoever that such seeds will eventually make their way into the wild and the repercussions are unfathomable. it is unconscionable that such research is continuing(after all this is only useful for companies wishing to sell seeds over and over)and of no benefit whatsoever for farmers in general, nor for anyone else. and the dangers are so high…to me, this is the epitome of Monsanto, the arrogance, the effort to corner the worlds food, to control the food supply, all for the greatest profit, and with no regard for the future.

    they cover up, lie, dissimulate, bribe, coerce, fake test results and every other dirty trick in the book. but no matter what is discovered about them, no matter what evidence is uncovered nothing will change, they own the government, look at the revolving door between their directors and the people employed to regulate them!

    SO, what are the options? what’s left to try? even Europe is giving way, allowing Monsanto ever more access…

  4. Mwalton makes many good points. Many crop plants are able to grow as "volunteers" (like tomatoes in my garden) but that does not make them "invasive weeds." There are, thankfully, only certain species with that potential and canola isn't one of them.

    As for what Monsanto will do, you can read about it here http://www.monsantoblog.com/2010/08/06/roadside-c

  5. What's missing is the discussion of biodiversity. If all of our major food crops are pretty much one subset of a species, what happens when a disease or pest comes along that can take them out? The number of types of grains we raise commercially is diminishing constantly. From hundreds of kinds of corn, we're down to less than a dozen. Same with soybeans, wheat, rice, etc. By genetically modifying these species to resist something or the other, then planting them openly, we risk those genes spreading into the native species and leaving them vulnerable to some new pest. Plus we loose the special qualities of the seeds mankind has grown for thousands of years. If you think this isn't happening…look up what's going on with bananas.

  6. Bananas (like all fruits) are cloned. Seedless bananas are rare as most of the wild species have big seeds. The main one used today (Cavendish) was discovered by chance in Vietnam decades ago. There is plenty of biodiversity in wild bananas. As for the grain crops that are grown from seed, there are major international germplasm collections. It would be good to fund that even more, but it isn't as if agricultural scientists around the world don't get this issue.

  7. My dad sprayed road ditch weeds well before Roundup came along. He used 2,4-D.

    Does this website have any other world "crisis" that needs to be solved with one or two sentances?

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