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Published August 16, 2010, 09:46 PM

GMO canola found growing wild in N.D.

Study says state’s crop has first samples of bio-engineering plants growing wild
This spring, the state’s farmers planted a record acreage of canola, amounting to all but 8 percent of U.S. plantings of the vegetable-oil producing plant.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

Canola is growing wild in North Dakota in several ways.

This spring, the state’s farmers planted a record acreage of canola, amounting to all but 8 percent of the U.S. plantings of the vegetable-oil producing plant.

Meanwhile, a recent study found wild, or “volunteer,” canola growing all over the state along roads, ditches and in soybean fields, much of it the genetically modified kind that is impervious to the popular herbicide Roundup.

Nothing new about a crop growing wild from stray seeds here and there. But researchers say it’s the first time such “feral” plants are GMOs.

No biggie, say some. Others say it is a harbinger of the unintended consequences of messing with plant genes.

Bioengineering crops to be “Roundup Ready” is popular because it makes weed control much more effective, using chemicals rather than cultivators.

It’s done in soybeans, corn and sugar beets and has helped increase yields and profits to farmers.

Same with canola. But the tall, hardy crop is tougher to knock down when it becomes a weed the next year after its planted, coming up as a “volunteer” in a field of much shorter soybeans.

It’s been a problem to a limited extent this year when soybean fields have lots of “volunteer” canola plants blossoming, said Ron Beneda, ag extension agent in Cavalier County.

Canola is a tough, tall, good-growing plant “that is very competitive,” Beneda said, making it a “yield-killer,” when it overshadows the shorter soybean plants the farmer is trying to grow.

He’s aware that a new study out of the University of Arkansas says a summer survey in northern North Dakota “turned up hundreds of genetically modified canola plants growing along roads across the state,” according to the researchers.

“What we have demonstrated in this study is a large-scale escape of a genetically modified crop in the United States,” said Cindy Sagers, according to Minnesota Public Radio. Sagers is an ecologist at Arkansas who led the study.

Sagers and other researches, including a couple from North Dakota State University, traveled 3,000 miles around the state taking samples of wild canola.

A presentation of Sagers’ research early this month in Pittsburgh at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America caught the attention of the New York Times as well as the Los Angeles Times, which said it was “the first report of a genetically modified crop found in the wild in the U.S.”

A big deal?

So it must be a big deal, right?

Well, not necessarily, some say.

“We don’t think it’s anything to be alarmed about,” said Barry Coleman on Monday. He’s the executive director of the Bismarck-based Northern Canola Growers. “Canola is related to the mustard family, so it’s an annual plant, that is quite prevalent in the northern climes and to see volunteer canola out there isn’t really unusual.”

Much more concerning are old enemies, the perennial weeds such as leafy spurge, which “escaped” decades ago and remain so difficult to suppress in many locations, say Coleman and others.

The concern over the GMO nature of the volunteer plants is misplaced, Coleman said.

“The percentage they found of GMO plants in the wild canola is about the same as they found in the crops that are planted. So to us, that isn’t really a story.”

Beneda said there are plenty of other herbicides, such as Raptor, available to handle wild canola in soybean fields.

Mowing and tillage take care of “feral” canola in other places.

It’s also important, Beneda said, not to conflate the popular “Roundup Ready” trait with all biotech modifications in plants. Many characteristics, such as higher protein or disease resistance, can be genetically wired into crops to improve them and have nothing to do with herbicide immunity.

Coleman said there shouldn’t be consumer concern over canola’s GMO nature because the Roundup Ready trait is fixed in the protein of the plant and the canola oil produced by crushing contains no protein.

Like spring wheat, durum and sunflowers, canola is a crop dominated by North Dakota growers.

The state’s 3,500 growers planted a record 1.35 million acres this year, about 92 percent of the U.S. total, Coleman said.

About 7 percent of it has been harvested and looks good, although it won’t match last year’s record yield of 1,840 pounds per acre, he said.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com.

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