Genetically Modified Rape Taking Over North Dakota

Field of rapeseed, source of canola oil photo

Image: joeshlabotnik, Flickr

Back when the bright yellow flowers were still known as Rape or Oilseed rape, Brassica napus produced a bitter oil, unsuitable for human consumption and used mainly to lubricate machines. Canadian researchers bred an edible hybrid known as "Canadian Oilseed, Low-Acid" -- or Canola, for short. Today, Canola oil claims to be one of the healthiest cooking oils, with high Omega-3 levels. Increasing use of Canola as a biofuel further expands the market for this well-rounded agricultural product. So all is well, isn't it?

Enter agricultural giant Monsanto. Canola joined the growing list of plants which have been genetically modified for resistance to Monsanto herbicide Roundup. On Friday, a new study joined the growing list of evidence that environmental advocates were right to warn about engineered genes creeping into the natural flora. The scope and extent of the escape of man-modified genes demonstrated in this study demands a re-evaluation of the use of genetically engineered crops.Researchers led by Cindy Sagers, of the University of Arkansas, sampled wild canola plants growing along North Dakota highways and roads. 86% of the plants sampled contained the altered genes. In two cases, the wild plants contained two different modified genes. Because no crop has ever been designed with more than one gene modified, this is evidence that the genes have already established themselves in the wild over several generations.

Mike Wilkinson, an expert from the Aberystwyth University in the U.K., told NPR that people should not worry about this. According to Wilkinson, the genetically modified canola does not compete well in the wild, being accustomed to grow with special care and little competition in the agricultural domain.

But even if the genetically engineered canola plant poses no threat to the ecological balance, the proof that the genes can spread so broadly, and even accumulate in nature in a manner beyond what was designed in the lab, puts into question the regulatory basis for approval of genetically engineered crops. Farmers growing these man-made crops are required to take measures to ensure that the man-made genes do not spread. Clearly these measures are not working as intended.

Modified genes have not yet been demonstrated to jump across species, giving other plants -- in the worst case, weeds -- resistance to herbicides. But if humanity learned one lesson from Silent Spring, hopefully it is to be humble in the face of nature's diversity. We must act on evidence such as this in a precautionary manner, using the knowledge we gain about the spread of modified canola genes to re-assess the risks and benefits of this technology.

More on Canola:
Ancient Plant May Become New Source of Biofuel
Quote of the Day: David Suzuki on Genetically Engineered Crops
Canola Oil Powered Car Wins Race from Berkeley to Vegas
Working on the ChainJ Gang: Pedro's Canola Lube

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