Lack of proper monitoring and control is being blamed for the first outbreak of genetically modified crops escaping into the American wild, reports Nature. Two herbicide-resistant canola varieties have been found growing rampant in North Dakota, and they appear to be evolving.
"The extent of the escape is unprecedented," said ecologist Cynthia Sagers, who led the research team that found the canola. She added that "these feral populations of canola have been part of the landscape for several generations."
Sagers' team found GM canola at nearly half of the 288 sites tested in North Dakota, and many of the plants were found far away from areas of agricultural production.
One of the transgenic varieties found was modified for resistance to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, and the other was resistant to Bayer Crop Science's Liberty herbicide. A third variety was discovered that was resistant to both herbicides, indicating that the two varieties were breeding and producing offspring that did not exist anywhere else.
Thus far the environmental impact of the escapee super-plants is difficult to measure, but they could become problematic weeds for farmers as they evolve and become increasingly tough to kill. There are also unpredictable ecological impacts that may arise as the genetically modified canola grow and replace native plants.
Their release into the wild also underscores a deeper concern about how GM crops are monitored. "The regulatory protocols designed to reduce or prevent escape and proliferation of feral transgenic crops are ineffective. Current tracking and monitoring of GM organisms are insufficient," said Sagers. She also noted a lack of funding for research in this area.
Half of the world's genetically modified crops are grown in the United States, so it was only a matter of time before GM plants escaped into the wild. Escapees have already been reported in other countries, such as in Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom.