Ecologists recently took to the highways of North Dakota on the hunt for genetically modified canola. Along 3,000 miles of interstate, state, and county roads, they found it: 86 percent of the 406 road-side plants they collected showed evidence of modification.
The scientists behind the discovery say this highlights a lack of proper monitoring and control of GM crops in the United States…. “The extent of the escape is unprecedented,” says Cynthia Sagers, an ecologist at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, who led the research team that found the canola. [Nature]
Though Sager does not believe that the modified canola will overtake North Dakota, she thinks the study is important for understanding how and to what extent a genetically modified crop can spread.
“We found the highest densities of plants near agricultural fields and along major freeways…. But we were also finding plants in the middle of nowhere–and there’s a lot of nowhere in North Dakota.” [BBC]
Specifically, the team looked for traces of a genetic modification that makes the crop resistant to herbicides. There are two manufacturers of these modified plants: Roundup Ready crops have a bacterial gene that gives them resistance to the weed-killer Roundup (glyphosate), and Liberty Link crops are resistant to glufosinate. At least two of the plants Sager found showed cross-breeding between the two varieties.
It was during a pit stop in Cavalier County that the two had an idea. “We looked through the windshield and there were these beautiful yellow flowers blooming,” Sagers recalled. They recognized the plant as canola, and wondered if it was a genetically modified variety. The duo had test strips that would detect proteins present in genetically modified canola. They walked across the parking lot, documented the plant and then tested it. Sure enough, it was a genetically modified variety resistant to herbicides. [NPR]
Despite that large percentage of GM plants in Sager’s study, many ecologists agree that the canola itself–as a domesticated plant–should not cause concern. Sampling by the road means that the plants likely resulted from trucks spreading the seed; some samples came from herbicide-sprayed areas (meaning the modified percentage is higher); and most of the plants, given their usually pampered lives, aren’t likely to survive in competition with wild plants.
Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at the University of California, Riverside says that GM corn and soybeans have not made strongholds off the farm, and notes that they’re grown more often than GM canola.
“They are super-domesticated and they just don’t really like to go wild.” [New York Times]
Though GM canola might appear next to roads, Linda Hall, a researcher at the University of Alberta in Canada, says she also believe the plant is unlikely to compete in more wild terrains.
“It’s pretty spoiled — it’s used to growing in well-fertilized, clean seedbeds without competition, so it does not do well if it is having to compete with other plants.” [NPR]
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Image: flickr / Paraflyer