‘Feral’ plants found growing along roads from North Dakota to Manitoba

The Vancouver Sun
By Margaret Munro, Postmedia News

Genetically modified canola has escaped from the farm and is thriving in the wild across North Dakota, according to a study that indicates there are plenty of novel man-made genes crossing the Canada-U.S. border.

GM canola was found growing everywhere from ditches to parking lots, the scientists report, with some of the highest densities along a trucking route into Canada.

“That’s where the most intense canola production is and it’s also the road that goes to the canola processing plants across the border,” said ecologist Cynthia Sagers of the University of Arkansas, referring to a canola plant in Altona, Man.

Her study stopped at the border, but Canadian research also has found “escaped” GM canola is becoming common on the Canadian prairies, and swapping man-made genes in the wild.

“Biology doesn’t know any borders,” said Rene Van Acker at the University of Guelph, who has done extensive research on the extent and behaviour of escaped GM crops in Manitoba.

For the study published Wednesday, Sagers and her colleagues drove across North Dakota and stopped every eight kilometres to see what was growing. At almost half of the 634 stops they found genetically modified canola.

At some locations there were thousands of GM plants growing.

“That was a shock to us,” Sagers said.

At other spots, the GM canola, which was engineered to withstand herbicides that kill weeds, was the only thing growing.

“In some places along the road where department of transportation had sprayed for weeds, the canola was blooming brilliantly,” Sagers said.

Of 288 canola plants the researchers tested, 231 were transgenic or genetically modified.

Perhaps most significant, they said, is the fact that two of the plants had combinations of herbicide resistance that had not been developed commercially.

“That suggests to us there is breeding going on, either in the field or in these roadside populations, to create new combinations of traits,” said Sagers. “In terms of evolutionary biology it’s pretty amazing.”

She says the findings raise questions about whether the escaped or “feral” GM canola might pass on man-made genes to wild species like field mustard, which is an agricultural pest.

“It is conceivably a very large problem,” said Sagers.

Van Acker said the study, like similar research done in Canada, raises red flags over plans to grow pharmaceutical drugs and industrial oils in GM plants. Such crops would have to be “confined” and kept out of the food system, said Van Acker, “and that starts to worry me.”

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which regulates and approves GM crops grown in Canada, said by email Wednesday that it is satisfied that the GM crops escaping farms pose no risk.

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