Studies show gene flow in GM canola likely widespread

By Ron Friesen
July 4, 2002
Manitoba Co-operator

Two recent studies have confirmed what canola growers have long suspected: gene contamination from generically modified canola is occurring just about any place the crop is grown.

An Agriculture Canada study has found that over half of certified canola seed lots from across Western Canada contain genes from GM canola varieties.  Another study carried out in Australia has learned that canola pollen travels much farther than previously realized.

The news that pollen (and genes) from GM canola travel freely in the environment raises new concerns about genetic contamination.

In the Agriculture Canada study, scientists in Saskatoon found that nearly half of the 70 certified seed lot samples tested were contaminated with the Roundup Ready gene.  Thirty-seven per cent had the Liberty Link gene. Fifty-nine per cent contained both.

The Canadian standards for genetic purity are 99.95 per cent for foundation seed and 99.75 per cent for certified seed.

The results suggest that a low level of contamination probably exists in most canola seed grown in Canada. Up to 75 per cent of the canola grown in Western Canada is generically modified to be herbicide resistant.

The Agriculture Canada study, done for the Canadian Seed Growers Association, warns that “unless canola pedigree seed growers take extra care to control canola volunteers in the years between canola pedigree production, such volunteers could raise the presence of foreign genes to unacceptable levels.”

The study was completed last year but remained under wraps until its official release last week.

Meanwhile, the Australian study found that gene-carrying pollen from GM canola can travel up to three km on the wind or insects.  The present isolation distance in Canada between GM and non-GM canola is 100 metres.

The results are expected to bolster GM opponents' attacks against genetically modified crops.  One of their main arguments is that pollen moving from GM to non-GM crops causes genetic pollution of the environment.

But for farmers, the issue is one of simple economics.  Gene flow from herbicide-resistant crops to crops without herbicide-resistant genes will soon cost them money - if' it isn't doing so already.

The Agriculture Canada study predicts that volunteer herbicide-tolerant canola may eventually contaminate non- herbicide-tolerant canola and make herbicide treatment much more difficult.

"The large number of canola seeds normally planted per acre, plus the high probability that a small percentage of herbicide-tolerant seeds will be present in most certified seed lots, has and will continue to result in significant herbicide-tolerant plant populations in most commercial canola fields,” it concludes.

Barb Isman, president of the Canola Council of Canada said genetic flow is not a concern because Canada does not market its canola as GM-free.

Therefore, it doesn't matter if GM canola outcrosses with non-GM canola or not, she said.

Isman said studies show that GM canola provides economic and environmental benefits to farmers because it requires less herbicide.

But Rene Van Acker, a University of Manitoba plant scientist, flatly rejected Isman's claims.

Since Roundup alone will not control Roundup Ready canola volunteers, farmers have to tank-mix a half-rate of MCPA to do the job.  This adds $3 an acre to their herbicide costs and loses any competitive advantage they previously might have had from GM canola.  Van Acker said.

As a result, the fact that GM canola genes can spread freely in the environment affects farmers directly in the wallet Van Acker said. "I don't see how anybody can say this is not a problem unless they don't give a crap whether the farmer makes money or not."

The University of' Manitoba is currently repeating the Agriculture Canada experiment. The U of M's results later this month are expected to be similar.

Van Acker said it's time for biotechnology to step back and look at the scientific implications of releasing GM crops into the environment. He said claims about the dangers of GM crops are mostly sensational, e.g., that they are a threat to human health.But GM opponents have missed the more obvious danger: the fact that GM genes can move within a genome and contaminate non-GM cultivars.

Van Acker said the industry should use the canola example to consider the risks of registering GM wheats."We should learn from canola before we move ahead with wheat,"

Currently, there is no GM wheat on the market. But Monsanto is believed to be only a few years away from developing a Roundup Ready wheat variety.