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Genetically Modified Canola Has Legs, Study Says

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For the first time, a genetically modified (GM) crop has been caught in the wild in the U.S., growing weedlike across roads and parking lots across North Dakota.

Cynthia Sagers and colleagues from the University of Arkansas sampled canola plants along 3355 miles (5400 kilometers) of North Dakota road. Out of more than 400 plants collected, 80 percent of them tested positive for “Roundup Ready” or “LibertyLink” genes, which give crops resistance to weedkillers.

Photo: Herbicide-resistant canola grows out of a sidewalk crack in North Dakota.  Courtesy University of Arkansas.

Farmers like these GM breeds of plant because they can spray a field with herbicide and then plant resistant canola. The canola will grow though nothing else can.

Sagers said that most of the very dense populations of canola–where there were more than a thousand growing in a narrow, 164-foot by 3.3-foot (50-meter by 1-meter) strip of land–were found in agricultural areas, where seeds could have blown from a nearby farm, or along major roads, where seeds could have spilled off a truck. But one GM plant that contained resistance to both Roundup and Liberty was “in the middle of nowhere,” Sagers said. “There was no canola within 50 miles.”

“Feral” GM plants have been found in the wild before, but never at this scale.  A third type of GM canola exists too, but Sagers and her team didn’t have an easy test for the third gene. That means that it’s possible that more than 80 percent of wild canola could contain human-engineered genes.

GM advocates say that modified crops allow farmers to produce more and thus feed more people. Critics, like the Organic Consumers Association and Greenpeace say that the long-term health risks to humans consuming GM crops haven’t been thoroughly studied. Some GM crops using nut genes, which never reached the market, have been found to cause allergies in people allergic to nuts.

The companies that create these GM plants have not been shy about trying to protect their patents.  More than a decade ago, Monsanto sued Percy Schmeiser for growing “Roundup Ready” in his fields without paying Monsanto’s technology use fee. One problem: Schmeiser had never used “Roundup Ready” and didn’t even want it there.

At the time, he argued the plants must have contaminated his field from a nearby farm. “They argued in court it couldn’t have blown in, because the seeds would only blow a few feet,” he said. (The case ended in a “draw” with the Canadian supreme court finding Monsanto’s patent valid for Schmeiser’s “volunteers,” though Schmeiser was not forced to pay anything to the agribusiness company.)

The new study seems to cast further doubt on Monsanto’s claims, though Schmeiser, nearly 80, who now spends his time speaking and trying to raise awareness of GM crops, says he’s done with lawsuits.

Sagers said her concern with detecting so much transgenic canola is the effect it could have on the native ecosystem. Ten years ago, she said, agricultural, non-GM crops hybridizing with native species was a concern. Now, “we’re pretty certain that what we stick into a crop is going to get out there somehow.”

Schmeiser added: “Once you introduce a new lifeform, there’s no calling it back,” he said. “It’s over.”

–Rachel Kaufman