America: one vast outdoor GMO experiment

November 2014

Prairie road through canola. CC photo by Jeff Franklin on Flickr
In 2010, a US specialist in plant populations found GM canola thriving widely along North Dakota roadsides. It was genetically transformed to resist proprietary herbicides and had been sprouting for generations. Recently, she gave an update:
“It's still there, and it's always going to be there. When you're driving down the road, and the only thing standing is herbicide-resistant canola, biodiversity has taken a hit.”

Commercial strains of herbicide-resistant canola growing where they shouldn't be are easy to spot. But the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the body responsible for promoting and protecting US agriculture, has approved nearly 20,000 field trial permits covering some 100,000 plantings of experimental GM crops.

Are these crops already joining the roadside GM canola which is "always going to be there"?

Freedom of Information requests to access the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection records present “a picture of the vast outdoor experiment with genetically modified crops” ongoing across America.

Keeping field-trialled GM plants under control is well-nigh impossible. Natural phenomena like the weather, small mammals, birds, insects and wild pigs can't be excluded from outdoor plots.

The human element, too, is inevitable, from leaving a gate open to admit cows, to vandalism, theft and sabotage, to driving a car through a plot. Human error such as moving GM seed without authorisation and planting GM seed in the wrong place has been recorded. In the infamous 'Monsanto incident', a GM cotton trial was accidentally harvested and entered the food chain. 

Human integrity is, sadly, also a factor in gene pollution. Preventing escape is time-consuming: one GM tomato researcher made it clear he had no intention of monitoring adjacent land for 'volunteer' GM plants as required, and intended to lie about it if asked.

These known and recorded incidents must be the tip of a continent-wide iceberg of gene pollution, and the iceberg is also, it seems, invisible to US regulators. 

APHIS has no firm count of field trial permits it has issued.

Back in 2005, government inspectors identified “weaknesses in inspections and enforcement”, and in 2008 recommended a more robust effort to monitor field trials citing the “controversy and financial harm” arising from half-a-dozen gene pollution incidents. However, it seems that legal action on gene escapes continues to be ineffective (see MEANINGLESS PROHIBITION – October 2014).

Inspectors have also suggested that the various fragmented government agencies involved in GM regulation should work together to check for unintended consequences of a GM crop on the environment, conventional farming and food safety. APHIS has responded to some of the recommendations such as bolstering its science and inspection capacities, but seems unaware of any further effort needed once products are on the market. Once a crop has been commercialised, no one tracks them.

US organic farmers are well aware of the threat of rampant artificial DNA to their livelihood, and in 2013 petitioned the USDA to strengthen oversight of field trials. Whether simply more oversight could help control gene pollution seems questionable.

Conventional farmers wanting to get off the GM treadmill are providing a ready and growing market for non-GM seed. However, one international grain-trading business in Illinois is finding GM-polluted corn so prevalent in the US that it's trying to import seed from Europe for growing in the States.


Many of the GM trial crops produce industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals. These could end up as cocktails in the environment and food chain, with very harmful side-effects.

The business opportunities for Europe as a non-GM seed reservoir when America finds itself so gene-polluted it's running out of safe food seem a much better, long-term, option than transnational trade agreements which will force GM onto us too (check out HERE'S A TIPP – November 2014). It's time suggest a different course of action to UK and EU agri-regulators.


Bill Lambrecht, Gene-altered apple tested in Washington state,, 5.09.14

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