Genetically engineered canola grows wild across North Dakota

A study published October 5, 2011, by the online journal PLoS ONE reports that genetically engineered canola plants, endowed with herbicide resistance, are growing outside of established farms along roadsides across North Dakota. At sites where canola (Brassica napus) was growing — at almost half of the sites sampled — 80 percent of the sampled plants had at least one herbicide-resistant gene.

Cynthia Sagers, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and her team also discovered that the genetically engineered canola had created novel hybrids; 0.7 percent had two different types of an herbicide-resistant gene, even though seed companies had not engineered a plant with both types present.

The bloom of a rapeseed cultivar, commonly known as canola. Image Credit: Canada Hky
Genetically engineered canola escaped from Canada in 1995. Via Wikimedia

Canola (Canadian oil, low acid) refers to a cultivar of rapeseed, a member of the mustard family. (The word rape in rapeseed comes from the Latin word rapum, meaning turnip.) Canola was originally a trademark but is now a generic term for edible varieties of rapeseed oil. In the United States, 90 percent of the canola crop grows in North Dakota.

Circles show the sampling sites; diameter of circle indicates plant density. The presence of genetically engineered protein is shown by color. Red: glyphosate resistance. Blue: glufosinate resistance. Yellow: dual resistance traits. Green: non-transgenic. Gray: no canola present. Stars show the locations of oilseed processing plants. Solid lines show interstate, state and county highways. Canola fields are indicated by stippling based on 2009 USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service report. Image Credit: PLoS ONE and USDA

As genetically engineered crops become increasingly prevalent in the United States, concerns remain about potential ecological side effects. Reports of transgene escape are few and are limited in the U.S. to the case of creeping bentgrass, Agrostis stolonifera (Poaceae), according to the authors.

The authors wrote:

Canola cultivars engineered for … herbicide resistance escaped cultivation shortly after their unconditional commercial release in Canada in 1995 and more recent research has documented widespread escape and persistence of transgenic canola in Canadian roadside populations. Since these discoveries, feral canola populations or non-engineered populations expressing biotech traits have been reported from Great Britain, France, Australia and Japan. In the U.S., [genetically engineered] canola was first approved for commercial release in 1998 and now most (>90 percent) of the acreage planted in the U.S. is genetically engineered for herbicide resistance.

In their paper, the authors argue that their discovery, more than 10 years after the initial release of genetically engineered canola …

… raises questions of whether adequate oversight and monitoring protocols are in place in the U.S. to track the environmental impact of biotech products.

They also note that biotechnology can provide important tools to feed the rapidly growing population:

We must safely engage all tools available to us to advance food, fuel and fiber alternatives as modern agriculture rises to the challenges of the next decade.

Noting that more than one quarter of the Earth’s land surface is covered by cultivated crops or forage species, Sagers said:

We have little understanding of how domesticated plants influence their wild relatives. This study is a first step in addressing these questions by documenting that domesticated species have a life outside of cultivated fields.

Brassica seeds. Image Credit: Florian Gerlach (Nawaro)

Bottom line: Researcher Cynthia Sagers, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and her colleagues have published a study revealing that genetically engineered canola (Brassica napus) grows wild across North Dakota. The study raises questions about the oversight of biotech products in the U.S. Results of the study appear October 5, 2011, in the online journal PLoS ONE.


E.O. Wilson on the future of biology

Japanese scientists engineer a mouse that sings like a bird

Can organic farmers be tech savvy?

October 6, 2011

Like what you read?
Subscribe and receive daily news delivered to your inbox.

Your email address will only be used for EarthSky content. Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

More from 


View All