Australian scientists respond to “wild” activity of GM canola

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 10th October 2011

Leading Australian scientists claim that the discovery of large, widely dispersed populations of genetically engineered canola growing uncultivated in the US is no cause for concern.

A study just published by the online journal PLoS ONE reported on the genetically modified canola growing ‘wild’ in North Dakota. The “escaped” plants were found statewide and accounted for 45% of the total roadside plants sampled in the study.

The study’s author, Meredith Schafer from the University of Arkansas, argued that the findings “raise questions of whether adequate oversight and monitoring protocols are in place in the U.S. to track the environmental impact of biotech products.”

However, Professor Rick Roush, Dean of the Melbourne School of Land and Environment at the University of Melbourne, in reviewing the report said, “The author of this study has presented no evidence that GM canola is any more weedy or problematic than non-GM canola, or that any harms whatsoever have resulted.

He went on to say that canola has been known to persist along roadsides in Europe, North America and Australia for decades. We can expect to find GM canola growing on roadsides in NSW, Victoria and Western Australia, alongside non-GM canola, with no more consequence than brightening the roadsides with yellow during their flowering.”

Professor Peter Langridge, CEO of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) at the University of Adelaide agrees with this assessment. He says, “It was always expected that the GM canola would behave in the same way and, as the area sown to GM canola grew, the incidence of roadside populations would expand. This does not present an environmental or safety problem for the community.”

However, Bob Phelps, the founder and executive director of Gene Ethics, an Australian non-profit advocacy group for food and crops free of genetic manipulation, disagrees. He told Australian Food News, “The research discloses a worrying trend for GM canola to grow far outside zones where it is cultivated. In Australia, our roadsides are the sole repositories for many rare and endangered plants, which may be adversely affected by the management of feral canola. The plants, it appears, may also be starting to infest other disturbed ecosystems such as bush land where we were assured they would not be viable.

According to Mr Phelps, Australia spends around A$5 billion per annum on weed management already and it would be disastrous if a major impact occurred just as the budgets for this type of work is shrinking.