A University of Arkansas researcher has found genetically modified canola growing wild in Dakota -- in addition, she found two different GM varieties had interbred to produce a completely new GM canola.
Dr. Cynthia Sagers, an ecologist with the University of Arkansas, presented her findings to the 9th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America on Friday. Sagers said her findings showed there is a lack of "proper monitoring" and control of GM plants in the United States, reported Nature. Sagers said "The extent of the escape is unprecedented."NPR reported that all the varieties of GM canola that Sagers and her team found growing wild in Dakota were all modified to be resistant to Monsanto's herbicide Roundup, but at least two different GM varieties bred together to produce a third variety of GM with a new trait, prompting Sagers to say "What we've demonstrated in this study is a large-scale escape of a genetically modified crop in the United States."
The paper, titled Evidence for the establishment and persistence of genetically modified canola populations in the U.S. The majority of the canola plants Sagers and her team collected while travelling 5,400 kilometers through Dakota were genetically modified. Her report concludes "... These observations indicate feral populations are reproducing and have become established outside of cultivation making this is the first report in the U.S. of established populations of genetically modified organisms in the "wild". As such, these observations have important implications for the ecology and management of native and weedy species, and as well as for the management of biotech products in the U.S."
In a press release issued by the Ecological Society of America, Sagers was quoted as saying she had found "... two instances of multiple transgenes in single individuals."
Monsanto downplayed the discovery, telling 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." However, according to BBC, Sagers said her team collected canola samples from cemeteries, gas stations, ball parks, grocery stores and along roadsides.
Sagers said her findings mean transgenic canola is capable of surviving in the wild, something some scientists say is not a major concern. NPR spoke with British researcher Mike Wilkinson, who said "I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. It's very difficult for either of these transgene types to give much of an advantage, if any, in the habitats that they're in."
BBC reported that feral GM plants are expected. The plants that survive are called volunteers and they are known to reproduce. In spite of this fact, scientists think the only problem posed by the wild GM canola is weed control, because the wild canola will spread resistance to Roundup, a problem that has meant increased work and expenses for farmers.
Environmental activists, however, are concerned about Dr. Sager's discovery. Reached via email on Friday, Eric Darier, Director of Greenpeace in Quebec, said "15 years ago, those who opposed the dissemination of GE crop in the environment had concerns about the contamination of ecosystems. This is now what is happening! As there is no thorough and independent impacts studies it is difficult to know the unintended consequences that this genetic contamination will have on ecosystems and biodiversity. By the time we found out it might be too late.
This news is also a very bad news for farmers and farming as more and more weeds will become more and more tolerant to the Roundup herbicide. This will force farmers to use greater quantities of even more toxic herbicides or to abandon land to weeds as it is already the case in many states in the US."
Monsanto has not denied the problem of "superweeds," acknowledging that herbicide-resistant weeds is a growing issue for farmers. In spite of this, the corporation still recommends use of its herbicide as a key component in controlling weeds in fields.
"Superweeds" are created when GM plants interbreed with non GM plants of the same species, transferring genes and creating herbicide-resistant strains that subsequently become nuisances to farmers, choking out crops. Superweeds are also created when weeds survive applications of Roundup and then pass on the adaptive genes to offspring.
GM canola is supposed to help farmers by increasing yields that require less inputs than non-GM canola. The Canola Council of Canada said GM canola is only modified to resist the herbicides applied to the fields, and oil made from the GM canola is identical to oil made from non-GM canola.
GM canola is widely grown in western Canada, the USA and Australia. Organic producers are concerned about the contamination of their non-GM canoloa by GM canola. An Australian organization has created a map of where GM canola is grown in Western Australia to facilitate farmers who do not grow the GM crop.