Super crops lead to super weeds
OLIVER MOORE / Globe and Mail 8aug02
Scientists say they have confirmed what farmers have suspected for years, that genes introduced into plants can migrate to nearby weeds, possibly making them stronger and more resistant to chemicals.
In what is being billed as a ground-breaking discovery, U.S. scientists in three states have shown that sunflowers modified with an artificial gene designed to help ward off pests can spread that ability to wild sunflowers.
Scientists bred wild sunflowers with cultivated sunflowers containing the transgene Bt - taken from the soil-dwelling bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces chemicals poisonous to some insects.
The hybrid sunflower that resulted was found to have 50 per cent more seeds and far less insect damage than the control group.
"This is the first example of what might happen if a beneficial transgene accidentally spread to a wild population and then proliferated in subsequent generations," said study co-author Allison Snow, a professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University. "We were surprised that a single transgene (foreign gene) could have such a big effect on seed production."
Saskatchewan farmer and anti-genetically modified organism (GMO) campaigner Percy Schmeiser was frankly disbelieving that this was not already known. He told globeandmail.com that Prairie farmers are all too familiar with the ill effects of genetic modification.
"You cannot control it once it's released into the environment," he said Thursday. "It will contaminate, and you will lose your pure seed."
The veteran of a lengthy patent battle with global chemical giant Monsanto, Mr. Schmeiser says that a court ruling has left him unable to plant canola - a crop he developed and grew for more than 50 years - unless he can prove that it does not include Monsanto's altered canola seeds. And that proof is impossible, he says angrily, because farmers have found that all seed has been contaminated.
"We have reports even of canola that is resistant to even 2,4-D," he said, referring to a powerful herbicide first sold in the late 1940s that would normally "knock the hell out of canola."
"It's an issue of superweeds. They never realized that it could happen, and it happened within two or three years."
Ms. Snow acknowledges the possible dangers of spreading GMOs, noting that "weeds are already hardy plants; the addition of transgenes could just make them tougher."
And a statement from the research team admits that "if a wild relative grows near a crop plant, chances are good that the two will crossbreed."
Ms. Snow also acknowledged that adding genes to a plant's DNA could hamper its ability to reproduce, while possibly also causing modified weeds to spread faster.
The team, which included researchers from the University of Nebraska and Indiana University, was scheduled to present its findings Thursday to the annual Ecological Society of America in Tucson.
Ms. Snow says that further research will be needed to see whether wild sunflowers that pick up foreign genes could become troublesome weeds.
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