"Superweed" invasion threatens farms


Industry has created a canola monster on the Prairies

Southam Newspapers (Saskatoon Star Phoenix, February 6, 2001)

By Tom Spears

Ottawa --- Genetically modified "superweeds" have invaded Canadian farms -- canola plants engineered to help farmers that instead escaped and crossbred with each other to form plants stronger than their parents.

Most pesticides can't kill these canola superweeds, which are sprouting up in wheat fields and other areas where farmers don't want them, Canada's expert panel on biotechnology says.

Three types of canola, each engineered with genes to resist one type of weed killer, have merged into new varieties resistant to many pesticides. Instead of helping farmers kill weeds, the canola itself has become the weed.

The superweed-canola is especially bad on the Prairies, where canola is a multibillion-dollar crop, says a report released Monday from the Royal Society of Canada's biotech experts.

The biotech industry has been "naive" in thinking that good farming methods alone will hold superweeds at bay, the report says.

And the panel warns that as the next generation of genetically engineered crops becomes more complex, it will be tougher to head off the superweeds of the future.

Canola "is the classic example" of a superweed, said Brian Ellis, a co-chair of the panel and a molecular biologist from the University of British Columbia. Canola varieties such as Liberty Link and Roundup Ready were engineered to use with a pesticide (such as Roundup). The idea was that a farmer would plant canola resistant to Roundup, then spray the field with Roundup.

Everything except the canola would die.

Where canola is nearly pesticide-proof, it can crowd out other plants -- crops and weeds -- in farm fields.

But its resistance to pesticides doesn't help its survival in the wild, where there are no pesticides.

"The next generation.....is crops that come along carrying genes that make them more frost-tolerant or drought-tolerant. They have an advantage over their wild cousins," Ellis said.

That means they will have a bioengineered advantage in taking over farm fields and in moving through wild areas.

“Herbicide-resistant volunteer canola plants are beginning to develop into a major problem” on the Prairies, the panel’s report says. (Volunteer plants are those that seed themselves.)

In Saskatchewan, Bruno-area farmer Percy Schmeiser was sued by chemical giant Monsanto which alleges Schmeiser illegally grew its Roundup Ready canola on his field without permission, violating its patent on the gene. Monsanto is seeking damages and legal costs that could reach up to $400,000.

Schmeiser contends the herbicide-resistant seeds contaminated his land after drifting in from other farmers’ fields. A trial was held and a federal court judge must now issue his decision on the case.

Canola has been farmed for only a few generations and so it still has some wide tendencies – such as dropping its seeds before a farmer can harvest them. This plants seeds for the next year.

And plants, the report says, “can be quite promiscuous.” Canola plants will breed with and other canola they meet, creating the phenomenon of “gene stacking,” or accumulating all the genes originally built into different strains by different laboratories.

This forces farmers to retreat to “broad-spectrum” pesticides – chemicals that kill just about everything, such as 2,4-D. These are chemicals that farmers were trying to get away from in the first place.

The point is, technology is still driving agricultural production along a chemical dependence route. And I think that’s something the government has to take a serious look at,” Ellis said.

Biotech industry reps told the expert panel that good farming will stop superweeds from evolving.

“This perspective may be unduly na´ve,” the report says. “In the real world, human error and expediency may often compromise guidelines for the growing of such crops.”

To view the entire report presented by The Royal Society of Canada click here