Why 'co-existence' is impossible

January 2013

Canola. Photo Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives [Attribution]
via Wikimedia Commons

1. GM canola flows along roads

A year ago, we reported that GM canola (oil seed rape) was being found everywhere.

This “everywhere”, referred to the well-established and happily inter-breeding GM plants now widespread on roadsides in Canada and America.


GM-free Scotland, October 2011

"Canola, a variety of oilseed rape, has 15 close relatives in the mustard family (some of which are noxious weeds) with which it can interbreed. Its seeds are small and impossible to contain during harvesting and transportation. Up to 30% of the crop can end up in the soil at harvest, and spillage along trucking routes is inevitable. Add to this, significant seed dormancy for up to three years, plus engineered herbicide-resistance genes: the emergence of volunteer GM canola in fields and roadsides which are routinely doused in herbicides can be considered a foregone conclusion."

In Australia, where GM canola was first cultivated in 2010 and where many areas are determinedly non-GM, a sudden large escape due to a truck-fire on a main highway one year later highlighted the impossibility of clearing up a spillage.

A recent survey of the extent of on-going gene contamination in Australia in 2012, revealed that things were much worse than expected. Highway verges through one non-GM area traversed by GM-carrying trucks (including the one that caught fire in 2011) were found to have GM canola weeds throughout the 10 kilometer stretch sampled; over 60% of canola plants sampled were GM. Australia's commercial GM canola crops formed only 8% of the total cultivated in 2010 and less in 2011: the expected contamination level was 1-2%.

2. GM grass flows in the wind

Next on the US GM crop agenda (believe it or not) is every gardeners' most common weed problem: grass.

With one eye on the lucrative golf-course market, a herbicide-tolerant creeping bentgrass was trialed in Oregon in 2002. Then along came the wind. By 2012, other related grasses with herbicide-tolerance genes were being found 14 kilometers from the test site and in sentinel plants 21 kilometers away. Also discovered was a new feral hybrid which has arisen between GM creeping bentgrass and an unrelated, 'rabbitsfoot', grass.

3. GM soya flows from grain dealers

An interesting twist to the gene flow story is unfolding through the US justice system. A farmer in Indiana is fighting Monsanto in the US Supreme Court over the company's objection to his completely legal purchase of no-strings-attached GM soya seed which he then grew in his fields.

Monsanto of course prohibits seed-saving, but seeds re-bought from the grain elevators to which they've been sold are not covered by biotech use-contracts.

So far Monsanto has succeeded in claiming patent infringement in the lower court and Court of Appeals. However, the Supreme Court might be less of a walk-over. According to local media reports the Obama administration urged the court not to take the case, warning that the outcome could affect patents involving DNA molecules, nanotechnologies and other self-replicating technologies.

4. GM flax flows out of the distant past

Meanwhile, back in Canada, the contamination of flax with 'CDC Triffid', an experimental GM strain not legal anywhere in the world, continues its saga.

CDC Triffid

CDC Triffid was originally grown on a small scale in Canada in 2001, but was subsequently banned. Stocks of the GM seed were supposed to have been destroyed.

In 2009, the GM trait was detected in flax food products in the EU, leading to a block on flax imports from Canada while its crops were cleaned up. At the time 10% of samples were testing positive for the GM gene. A year of later the level of contamination had only reduced to 7% and by 2011 one in twenty-five samples still contained traces of the rogue genes.

In 2012, after four years of effort to clean-up the crop, Triffid gene contamination was still running at 2%.

The EU is now importing industrial flax from Canada again, and both governments seem to be 'solving' the gene-flow-from-the-past by changing their legislation to permit “low-level presence” of unauthorised genes.


Clearly, road haulage and the weather can't be banned, grain dealers can't be told not to sell grain, and gene-contaminated fields can't be cleaned up. The inevitable conclusion is that GM/non-GM co-existence is impossible to achieve and GM-free zones are impossible to maintain. A logical course would be to stop creating the genes which become the pollution, but instead governments choose to throw the precautionary principle on GM to the wind and make the illegal legal. This is exactly what anti-GM campaigners have been predicting for decades and what the biotech industry has been counting on to force acceptance of GM crops.

In light of the worrying results which have emerged from first ever life-long feeding study of a GM crop and the chemical it's designed to tolerate (the same one that's in the GM canola, GM creeping bentgrass and GM soya), uncontrollable gene contamination has assumed a whole new dimension (see GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT - October 2012).

Next time the latest GM wonder pops up in the news, drop in a reminder about the absence of long-term safety testing and the proven inevitability of genetic contamination.

  • Fugitive GM Canola Study, Western Australia Conservation Council Citizen Science Program,, 16.10.12
  • Escape and hyubridization of a genetically modified invasive plant, Invasive Plant Guide Blog,, 5.10.12
  • Allison A. Snow, Illegal gene flow from transgenic creeping bentgrass: the saga continues, Molecular Ecology 21:10, October 2012
  • Anne Sewell, Indiana farmer taking Monsanto to Supreme Court, Digital Journal, 7.10.12
  • EU Imports of Canadian Flax Resumed - Legality questioned, GM Freeze press release, 17.10.11
  • Phil Franz-Warkentin, Flax sector slowly recovers from Day of the Triffids,, Commodity News Service Canada, 11.10.12
  • Omid Ghoreishi, GM Food Proposal Compromises Food Safety, Say Groups, Epoch Times 18.12.11
  • Sean Pratt, GM policy seen to hurt food safety, Western Producer, 15.12.11

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