Genetically Modified Canola 'Escapes' Farm Fields Altered versions of the crop used in cooking oil have sprouted up far beyond the fields in which they were planted. Though the herbicide-resistant variety appears to pose no threat, scientists can use the canola crop to study how other genetically modified crops spread in the wild.
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Genetically Modified Canola 'Escapes' Farm Fields

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Genetically Modified Canola 'Escapes' Farm Fields

Genetically Modified Canola 'Escapes' Farm Fields

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Okay. It's no surprise by now that genetically modified crops are growing in farm fields all over the United States. It may be surprising to learn that some of the genetically modified crops have escaped. They're starting to appear outside the borders of farm fields. Researchers have found genetically modified canola growing wild along the roads of North Dakota. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL: This story begins in a parking lot in Cavalier, North Dakota. Cindy Sagers, an ecologist from the University of Arkansas, was visiting to study weeds. But there were none to be found.

CINDY SAGERS: Since we couldn't find any weeds, we were sitting in the car enjoying a soda at the only grocery store at Cavalier County. We looked through the windshield and there were these beautiful yellow flowers blooming.

BRUMFIEL: Anyone who's been to the state would recognize this plant as canola. Over a million acres of canola are grown in North Dakota, and roughly 90 percent are varieties that have been genetically modified to resist herbicides.

This raised an interesting question. Were the plants growing in the parking lot conventional varieties or GM strains?

Sagers and graduate student Meredith Schafer decided to find out.

MEREDITH SCHAFER: So we walk over, grab one of the plants out. And to be sure, you know, we had these strips that we could test for the resistance.

BRUMFIEL: Kind of like a pregnancy test. One stripe - normal canola. Two stripes - GM canola. Sure enough, two stripes.

SAGERS: Almost immediately we headed west on the highway and just began sampling every five miles.

BRUMFIEL: One year and 3,000 miles later, the group has clear evidence that GM canola is growing feral across North Dakota. Eighty-six percent of plants sampled were genetically altered versions.

It sounded potentially alarming, so to find out the implications I called possibly the only place in the world with more GM canola than North Dakota.

LINDA HALL: If you look outside my window you would see mostly a field of yellow-flowering canola. It's absolutely beautiful at this time of year.

BRUMFIEL: Linda Hall studies environmental biosafety at the University of Alberta in Canada. Hall knows a lot about GM canola. It was first introduced to Canada about a decade ago, and it's now grown extensively across millions of acres of land. It's actually common to find it on roadsides there.

HALL: Canola's a very small seeded crop. Those seeds are easily lost out of trucks along roadsides. And they form little populations along the roadsides. It's very common to see them all through where canola is grown.

BRUMFIEL: These colonies are easy to find, but they haven't spread much beyond the roads. That's because all canola, even GM varieties, can't compete in the wild.

HALL: It's pretty spoiled - it's used to growing in well-fertilized, clean seedbeds without competition, so it does not do well if it is having to compete with other plants.

BRUMFIEL: Canadian researchers initially worried that GM canola might become a weed in farmers' fields or out-compete native plants. But Hall says there's no evidence that this is happening.

Cindy Sager says that GM canola isn't going to take over North Dakota either.

SAGERS: Whether these canolas are going to climb up and bury standing forests, I don't think that's going to happen.

BRUMFIEL: But Sagers says her work highlights an important issue: Future varieties of genetically modified crops will escape into the environment. Studying North Dakota's canola should teach researchers exactly how that spreading occurs and what the potential impacts could be.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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