So there's this study everybody's been talking about over the last few days, where some researchers found some genetically modified canola plants growing in the wild in the U.S. And I feel like I have to talk about it a little bit. So I will.
What is canola? Canola is a variety of oilseed rape (Brassica campestris or B. rapa), produced for making cooking oil, animal feed, and other products. It's preferable to regular rape because: the name is less off-putting,1 its glucosinolate levels are significantly lower, making it more suitable for animal and human consumption,2 and it was bred to grow especially well in Canada, though that last one is pretty much only preferable if you live in Canada. In the U.S., North Dakota and Minnesota also grow some canola.
As with a lot of crops, much canola currently being grown is of genetically modified varieties which resist the herbicides glyphosate (Monsanto's) or gluphosinate (Bayer's). American readers are fairly likely to know glyphosate by the trade name Round-Up.
So what the study (conducted by University of Arkansas scientists) found was that -- brace yourself -- along the sides of roads where genetically-modified, herbicide-resistant canola seed is frequently transported, one can find genetically-modified, herbicide-resistant canola plants growing. I'll give you a moment to pick yourself up off the floor.
The bigger news, though, is that some of the plants researchers found had genes for resistance to both glyphosate and gluphosinate. Now, Monsanto sells canola seeds which resist glyphosate but not gluphosinate, and Bayer sells seeds which resist gluphosinate but not glyphosate, but nobody sells seeds which are resistant to both, because doing so would mean violating one or both companies' patents. Which means that the plants are breeding, along the sides of these roads, and a few lucky plants have managed to snag both resistance genes.
So, wow. Plants of the same species, growing next to one another along the side of the road, can cross-pollinate one another and shuffle their characteristics about. Who could possibly have guessed?
Cue the anti-GMO crowd, who point to this as proof that genetically-altered crops can escape into the wild and breed SUPERWEEDS!, which for some reason is always said like that, in bold all-caps, with the exclamation point. They predict that these SUPERWEEDS! will next cross-pollinate other species, species to which they're not even related, and then we'll have even more SUPERWEEDS! until such point as genetically modified organisms ruin every single thing in the world for all time. Or something like that. I'm a little fuzzy on what the actual problem is that they're seeing.
Now, it's possible that there's something to this story that I've missed, and GMO canola really is going to kill us all, but here's why I'm not seeing this as a problem, or even as news:
1) It's not news because this has been seen already. This is apparently the first time it's been spotted in the United States, this escaping of transgenes into the wild, but this is old news to Canada, Japan and Australia. So for anybody to be making a big deal out of it now just because it's happening in the U.S. is a little silly. It makes perfect sense that it would happen, we've seen it happen elsewhere, now it's happened here. So what.
2) Genes don't actually jump species that easily in the wild. I mean, it happens, but part of the reason why we can say that this plant is a Strelitzia and this plant is a Phalaenopsis is because they're genetically distinct enough that they won't breed with one another. The odds of an herbicide-resistance gene from a Brassica being transferred to dandelions or goosefoot is pretty tiny.3 And even if it were, the new plant could be sterile, so you get one lonely hybrid plant that lives its life without setting any seeds and then is never seen again. Or it may just be bad at competing with other plants. Or it could get eaten by a cow. Winning the lottery doesn't protect you from getting struck by lightning.
3) The existence of "wild"4 plants with transgenes doesn't actually make it more likely that weeds are going to pick up these herbicide-resistance genes. Plants containing these genes were already growing in large fields all over, next to substantial numbers of uncultivated weeds. We could argue about whether that's a responsible arrangement or not, but either way: if the transgenes were going to spread, they were already doing so, so this discovery is small potatoes next to that.
4) These "wild" plants only have one advantage over non-GMO plants: that they're resistant to herbicides. If we stop using these herbicides because they're no longer effective, then these canola plants no longer have an advantage over other plants they're in competition with.5 If they no longer have an advantage, then they're likely to be outcompeted. If they're outcompeted, they die, and the problem goes away on its own.
So even if the transgene for glyphosate resistance spread to every single plant on earth, all that would happen is we'd stop spraying glyphosate. Which we should possibly be doing anyway. This is much less an emergency for the environment and much more an emergency for the herbicide manufacturers.
5) As much glyphosate as people were using, some plant was going to evolve glyphosate resistance sooner or later. We may have sped up the process, but herbicides and pesticides never last forever: glyphosate and gluphosinate wouldn't have either.
I'm more or less indifferent to genetic engineering, personally. I don't see it as being that much different from what people were doing before. Whether a crop plant's genes arise through hundreds of years of selection and breeding, or get borrowed, fully-formed, from a jellyfish, platypus, or ostrich, really doesn't matter that much to me, as far as whether or not I'd eat or grow the plant.
Having said that, I'm still deeply worried about the legal and regulatory issues around GMOs: the patents, the suing of organic farmers because the GMO-using farmers can't keep their pollen to themselves, the Terminator genes, and so forth. Monsanto's done some pretty crooked things already; there's no reason to think they won't do more in the future. This doesn't invalidate the technology, but we might question whether we should trust Monsanto with it. A country with a functioning, representative democracy could probably do something about this situation, but I don't live in one of those, so I'm pretty much stuck with crossing my fingers and hoping Monsanto doesn't manage to ruin anything we can't live without.
but I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man: so's Canola.
Ca- Ca- Ca- Canola, Ca- Ca- Ca- Canola.
(Photo: Canola field in Temora, New South Wales. Photo by John O'Neill, via Wikipedia.)
There are two points I hope readers take away from this. The first is, I'd like you to remember that it matters a great deal what the transgenes have been introduced to do. Genes aren't automatically safe because genetic engineering has happened; they're also not automatically dangerous. BT corn6 worries me a little bit, even though the evidence so far seems to be saying that it doesn't pose a serious threat to non-target organisms like monarch butterflies. I worry anyway because I can see how the BT gene might get out and protect weeds from being eaten, someday, or because I can see how large amounts of BT-producing pollen blowing around in the environment could have consequences for other organisms. Don't think consequences are likely, but I can see how it could work, and I wouldn't necessarily be surprised. But this? Herbicide-resistant canola? Not so much.
The second thing is that I would take it as a personal kindness if everybody would stop calling them SUPERWEEDS! The word "superweed" only has one purpose: to scare people and make them easier to manipulate. It's a dumb, dumb word, and more than being dumb, it's dishonest. We have way, way too many words like that now.7 Please stop using it.
I'd be willing to settle for ironic-only usage, if that would be easier on everyone.
James and the Giant Corn (who is responsible for me realizing I had enough to say on the subject to make a blog post out of it, and from whom I may have stolen a couple tiny little points)
New York Times
International Business Times
1 Canola" is an acronym of sorts, standing for "Canadian oil, low acid." Originally this was a trademarked name, but has since become generic for low-acid, low-glucosinolate rapeseed oils. The original name of rape is totally innocent, and comes from the Latin rapum, meaning turnip, to which rape is related.
2 Glucosinolates are bitter-tasting compounds found throughout the mustard family (Brassicaceae) and a few other families. If you dislike cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccoli, or cabbage, glucosinolates are probably why.
3 Why? Well, it's complicated, but at least some of the reason is that in order for plants to cross with one another, their chromosomes have to have most of the same genes, in mostly the same order, on more or less the same number of chromosomes. The less-related two plants are, the more genetic changes have accumulated, and the less able they will be to cross.
4 I don't think "wild" is exactly the right word here. They can grow in places where they're spilled along the side of the road, and apparently they can also cross and have progeny which also live along the side of the road. But roadsides aren't pristine habitats to begin with, so they're hardly ruining anything we hadn't already ruined.
5 In fact, they're likely to be at a disadvantage, if anything. Long story, no time, but maybe someday.
6 Corn which has been genetically modified to include a gene for an insect-killing protein from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. Among the advantages of BT corn: it doesn't have to be applied to the plant because it's already built-in, it doesn't lose potency during the growing season, and it only affects insects that try to eat parts of the plant. A possible serious disadvantage: pollen, which is spread far and wide through the air, counts as a plant part.
7 It's somewhat out of fashion now, but the best example is probably terrorist. It has a real meaning, and occasionally you still see people using it correctly, but most of the time, if somebody starts talking to you about terrorists, that's a sign that someone wants you to turn off part of your brain and be afraid.