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Beyond the Rows is a Monsanto Company blog focused on one of the world’s most important industries, agriculture. Monsanto employees write about Monsanto’s business, the agriculture industry, and the farmer.
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GM Canola on the Loose? Some Points to Consider

Canola was originally bred in the 1970s, and is used as a food oil and as biofuel. Canola is also used as an animal feed and can be found in candles and lipsticks.

Have you ever seen a canola plant? It’s a very pretty crop produced for its oil and distinguished by its bright yellow blooms. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it’s not a bad plant to find growing as a weed along the roadside, which often happens. Some probably even mistake it for a wildflower. One department of transportation is purposefully planting it roadside.

Canola (and more specifically, GM canola) is the topic of a research survey described as “the first evidence of established populations of genetically modified plants in the wild.” The survey was presented at the Ecological Society of America annual meeting today in Pittsburgh. To see Monsanto’s official statement on the finding, click here.

The researchers sampled 406 feral canola plants they found along 5,400 kilometers (or approx. 3,355 miles) of roadsides in North Dakota. “Feral” means the plants were growing in the wild, rather than as a crop in-field

The researchers collected, photographed and tested the 406 canola plants to see whether they were biotech (GMO). They found non-GM canola, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® canola as well as Liberty Link® canola (a Bayer Crop Science product).

Testing showed that 86 percent of the canola plants (or 347 of the 406) tested positive as either Roundup Ready or Liberty Link. The study also found two plants (0.7 percent) had both the Liberty Link and the Roundup Ready gene.

There are several pieces to consider here:

1. All types of canola – GM or not– can be found growing along roadsides or other areas near farm fields.

Most commonly, canola seed falls off trucks during transport between fields and elevators or processors. Canola seed is very small and light and can also be carried limited distances by the wind or by getting caught in farm equipment. Canola that is unwanted is commonly referred to as “volunteer” canola. Volunteer canola (which can also be organic, conventional or GM) can appear in farmer fields when they are growing other crops such as wheat, barley, peas, etc. The issue is how to get rid of the volunteer, which in these cases, is viewed as a weed because it’s unwanted.

One way to manage roadside GM canola is through mowing, but Monsanto also provides information to farmers and other professionals on alternative ways to manage volunteer canola. Others are also researching ways to manage it as this Australian study, “Roadside Canola Won’t Go Wild,” shows.

2. A collection of roadside canola, unsurprisingly, is expected to reflect the makeup of nearby farmers’ canola crops.

About 90 percent of the U.S. and Canadian canola crops are biotech varieties. A collection of volunteer canola would be expected to reflect this same proportion.

North Dakota accounts for 91 percent of the total 1 million acres of U.S. canola production.

3. The idea that GM canola would volunteer –just like traditional canola—was recognized and considered as part of the regulatory approval process by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in the mid-1990s. Depending on where the volunteer canola was found, the agencies noted that it would require management.

When considering approval of Roundup Ready canola, USDA-APHIS found that nothing about the volunteer GM canola (and its offspring) would give it ability over traditional canola in the wild to outcompete other plant species. Following is language from the USDA Roundup Ready canola approval. The Liberty Link canola approval language is the same. Note that CP4 EPSPS refers to the Roundup Ready trait.

“In nature, the gene that results in accumulation of CP4 EPSPS and GOXv247 proteins will not provide glyphosate-tolerant canola or its progeny with any measurable selective advantage over non-transformed canola plants in their ability to disseminate or to become established in the environment. There is no reason to believe that glyphosate-tolerant canola exhibits any increased weediness relative to traditional varieties.”

USDA APHIS #98-216-01p (RT73, RR canola)

The agencies also considered the possibility that canola would cross with other species. The CFIA—while noting this was a concern for the long-term efficacy of glyphosate (Roundup) herbicides— concluded that these crosses are manageable using available agronomic practices and are not invasive species.

“If glyphosate tolerant individuals did arise through interspecific or intergeneric hybridization, the tolerance would not confer any competitive advantage to these plants unless challenged by Roundup® herbicide. This would only occur in managed ecosystems where Roundup® is applied for broad spectrum weed control, or in plant varieties developed to exhibit Roundup® tolerance and in which Roundup® is used to control weeds. As with glyphosate tolerant B. napus volunteers, these individuals, should they arise, would be controlled using other available chemical means. Hybrids, if they developed, could potentially result in the loss of Roundup® as a tool to control these species. This however, can be avoided by the use of sound crop management practices.

The above considerations led CFIA to conclude that gene flow from GT73 to relatives is indeed possible, but would not result in increased weediness or invasiveness of these relatives.”
CFIA DD95-02 (RT73, RR canola)

4. Finally, as it relates to volunteer/roadside canola and saved seed and intellectual property, it has never been Monsanto policy nor will it be to exercise patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seeds or traits are present in a farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means.

Monsanto’s sole objective is to protect its patent rights where there has been a knowing and deliberate misappropriation of our technology.

What questions or comments do you have about this finding?

More resources:

Green : A New York Times Blog – Roadside Invader: Engineered Canola

Canola Council

U.S. Canola Association

Northern Canola Growers Association

Canola-info.org (info on canola oil use in food)

Canadian canola farmer talks about why he grows GM canola

5 Responses to "GM Canola on the Loose? Some Points to Consider"

  1. Regarding statement 4, isn’t it true that Monsanto has gone after farmers in Canada who have saved their own seed for generations, did not wnat GM genes in their see, but inadvertanty did get GM genes in their canola seed. In fact, I believe at least one farmer had to destroy the seed that his family had saved for generations because of a law suit that Monsanto brought against him for having GM canola in his field. This farmer did not intend to have GM canola and in fact did not want it. It is outrageous that we are allowing this kind of thing to happen to farmers.

    Reply
  2. No, it is not true. The situation you described is the type of circumstance that does not fall into the definition I have above.

    For more perspective, the only way farmers would know if they have GM canola seed in their crop is if they were spraying glyphosate (Roundup) over the top of it. If they are saving and planting non-GM seed, they definitely wouldn’t spray herbicide on it or else their crop would die.

    I agree with you, that if that were the case it would be outrageously unfair.

    Reply
  3. Many claim that gmo’s are dangerous to nature because their are unnatural. I know that BT-gene was found from soil bacteria, but have Roundup Ready and Liberty link allso been found from nature or are they somekind of mutant genes produced by exposing to radiation or chemicals by humans? If later, then claims of unnatural genes has some truth.

    Though I do agree with Micas writing and can’t see why they would be dangerous because weeds at roudsides are controlled with mowing, not herbisides. But are those genes unnatural?

    Reply
    • Ville – The gene for Roundup Ready (glyphosate tolerance) came from bacterium. Here is more information in the History section of Monsanto.com (click on Seeds for the section on Roundup Ready). http://www.monsanto.com/who_we_are/history.asp

      The Liberty Link gene is also derived from bacteria. Both Roundup Ready and Liberty Link are developed through the use of biotechnology, i.e. transferring a gene from one organism to another.

      The genes are “natural.” The “unnatural” claim is made because these genes would not be present without man’s intervention.

      Reply
    • Ville – in addition to Mica’s comments below – are mutated genes really that unnatural? Every gene is, to some extent, a mutated form of others (be that through copying error, radiation, chemical mutagenisis etc) – It’s probably perfectly correct to call the roundup ready gene a mutant form of the EPSPS albeit one that occured “naturally” in a population of bacteria and was then selected for (potentially a relatively recent mutation) jsut as it would be perfectly correct to call most of the forms of Bt toxin utilized in insect resistant transgenics as mutant (they’re all related to one and other in families and sub-families of proteins) variations of each other (relatively older mutations, and again “natural”)

      Is the natural/unnatural divide here an important one, or is it just semantics? Should we fear conventionally bred (non-GM) crops because they’re unnatural (chemically or radioactively mutagenized to produce variation) – or should our assessment of risk be based on something more concrete than the rather artificial and meaningless divide between the natural and the unnatural?

      Reply

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