Genetically modified canola found in the wild

For the first time, University of Arkansas researchers discovered that a biotech crop has established itself into the wild.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor on

Standing inside a field of yellow flowers in North Dakota, University of Arkansas researchers' curiosity got the best of them. They decided to test the canola plants in the Warehouse Foods ditch for proteins that would tell them if the crops are resistant to the very herbicides designed to kill them.

The results came back quickly, delivering the news like an unexpected pregnancy test — the crop developed genes that are resistant Monsanto's Roundup or Bayer's Liberty Link herbicide.

This is the first time a biotech crop has been found flourishing in the wild. In farms, genetically modified canola plants are grown, so it can be used for cooking oil and in animal feed. However, when the GM crops persist in the wild and can not be killed by herbicides, it becomes a weed.

The researchers took a road trip in a red Ford Explorer to scale most of the state, stopping every five miles to take samples. 604 stops and 3,000 miles later, they confirmed their suspicions: The GM crop does persist in the wild.

“We traveled over 3,000 miles to complete the sampling,” University of Arkansas graduate school Meredith Schafer said in a statement. Some of the sites had densely packed plants, with 1,000 specimens in a 50-meter space. “They spray these roadsides with herbicides, and canola is the only thing still growing.”

The researchers found that as much as 83 percent of the canola found in the wild had mutated from what is commercially available and the plants contained at least one transgene.

Canola was detected in nearly 50 percent of the locations. And boy, this crop doesn't discriminate. The researchers found the weed growing in gas stations, cemeteries, ball parks, and along roads.

It is unclear of if this is a problem, but some argue that it's impossible to stop gene pollution from happening.

In fact, canola can "mate' with 40 different weed species around the world. However, United States regulatory agencies have said previously that volunteer populations of GM, herbicide-resistant canola, are bound to happen.

With more than 50 percent of the earth used for growing crops for food or forage, the researchers warn that we need to be mindful of how we modify the plants used in cultivation, especially since it is clear they can end up growing in the wild.

No doubt, it will be hard to control plants that are resistant to available herbicides. What are regulators going to do about it? It's unclear if it's a problem at all. Time will tell.

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