Genetically Engineered Superweeds Emerge in Canada

The Globe and Mail (Canada) Thursday, June 15, 2000

A new breed of superweed
An Alberta farmer's shuffling of herbicides and crops had an
unexpected result: a plant that almost nothing could kill

By Gillian Steward

Calgary -- Tony Huether's family has been farming for four
generations. So two years ago, when he spotted stray canola plants in
a field on his northern Alberta farm that he wanted to seed with
wheat, he thought a thorough spraying with herbicide would easily get
rid of them. But after a thorough drenching in Roundup, an
all-purpose weed killer developed by the agricultural-chemical giant
Monsanto Inc., the canola was still standing tall.

The year before, Mr. Huether had sown Quest canola -- a genetically
modified variety, also developed by Monsanto, that was resistant to
Roundup. This meant he could plant the seed, and as it and other
plants and weeds started to sprout, he could spray with Roundup and
only the canola would be left standing. In a field across the road he
planted 20 acres of Innovator, a genetically modified canola
engineered to tolerate Aventi's Liberty herbicide. In a third field
400 metres away, he planted a third variety bred for resistance to
Cynamid's Pursuit and Odyssey herbicides.

As he prepared to seed fields with wheat in the spring of 1998, he
realized that the stray canola didn't die because it was likely the
Roundup-resistant type he had planted the year before. So he applied
a second chemical mix, but the stray canola was left unscathed.

"I knew I had a real problem," Mr. Huether said from his farm near
Sexsmith, about 400 kilometres west of Edmonton. "I just couldn't
figure out how to get rid of the stuff."

Eventually he called in the crop specialists from Alberta
Agriculture. They took plant and seed samples. In a report released
earlier this year, provincial oil-seed specialist Phil Thomas
confirmed that Mr. Huether's stray canola was a new variety resistant
to two common herbicides. Seed from his fields produced canola that
was resistant to three commonly used herbicides -- Roundup, Liberty
and Pursuit. In three years, Mr. Huether had unwittingly produced a
super-herbicide-resistant breed, the first documented case of gene
stacking in canola occurring without deliberate human intervention.

It was soon determined that 2,4-D -- a common herbicide in use since
1946 -- would kill off the super canola that had become a super weed.
But Mr. Huether's super weeds served as a warning that while man can
successfully tinker with nature in the lab, nature cannot be
disregarded all together. Genetically modified canola, which is now a
major cash crop in Canada, can easily outcross between varieties
(rather than crossing between two organisms of the same variety),
whether they are genetically modified through DNA manipulation or
induced-mutation hybrids produced through controlled breeding. Bees
and other insects will carry the sticky, heavy pollen from one plant
to another. Wind also transports the pollen and all the genetic
modification it contains from one field to another. Seeds from the
new outcrossed varieties can be carried by wind, animals, birds,
humans and truck and tractor tires to other fields where they can
sprout, and their pollen can migrate to yet another type of canola.

"This was anticipated," Mr. Thomas says. He has been studying canola
(a yellow-flowered edible oilseed once known as rapeseed) for 30
years at Alberta Agriculture's Field Crop Development Centre in
Lacombe. "But if farmers manage their crops properly it won't become
a problem." Since there are now six different canola systems, farmers
need a lot of management skills. Some varieties have been developed
to produce a canola low in fatty acid designed to appeal to
health-conscious consumers. Mutogenesis (controlled breeding) was
used to develop certain herbicide-resistant canola varieties. The
latest is genetically modified canola also designed to stand up to
certain herbicides.

"Pollen from any of the above canola systems can outcross to any
nearby canola plants, whether or not they are the same or of a
different system. In other words, the pollen of novel-trait
herbicide-tolerant canola plants can outcross to nearby
non-herbicide-tolerant canola or canola with other herbicide
tolerances," Mr. Thomas says.

To avoid this, farmers must plant different varieties at least 175
metres away from each other, know what their neighbours are planting
and rotate crops and herbicides. Mr. Thomas also points out that
technically, canola is not a weed, and since even the outcrossed GMO
(genetically modified organism) varieties can be easily eliminated
with 2,4-D, there is no danger of it becoming an uncontrollable

Nevertheless, the rapid outcrossing of GMO herbicide-resistant plants
raises serious questions for those concerned about the emergence
around the world of weeds that do not die no matter what herbicide is
applied. Herbicide-resistant weeds ruin crops, endanger food supplies
and ruin once-fertile land. According to a 1998 survey conducted by
Weedsmart, a herbicide-resistance research organization funded by the
Weed Science Society of America ( and two
industry-related groups -- the North America Herbicide-Resistance
Working Group and the Herbicide Resistance Action Committee, there
are now 216 herbicide-resistant weeds in 45 countries. Most of them
can be found in developed countries where the same herbicides have
been used for decades. The United States tops the list with 80 types
of herbicide-resistant weeds. Canada and Australia are second with 32
each, and France is next with 30.

In Manitoba, for example, herbicide-resistant wild oats have become a
serious threat to crops. A recent University of Manitoba study found
that one field in four has herbicide-resistant wild oats. Seed
samples collected by the Manitoba Weed Supervisors' Association from
suspicious-looking weed patches found that of 204 samples tested, 163
showed resistance to wild-oat herbicides designed to kill them. If a
genetically modified herbicide-resistant variety of oats was
introduced into Manitoba, it would soon outcross with its wild cousin
and Manitoba farmers would have an even bigger problem on their

According to Weedsmart director Ian Heap, some Manitoba wild mustard
(a relative of canola) has developed resistance to phenoxy herbicides
such as 2,4-D. But since wild mustard does not directly cross with
canola, it is unlikely, he says, that canola will develop resistance
to 2,4-D.

"But it's very important that farmers not plant crops that can
outcross with nearby herbicide-resistant weedy varieties," Dr. Heap
adds. "Farmers can also choose not to use GMO herbicide-resistant
seeds if there is a danger it will become an uncontrollable weed or
outcross with a wild relative." Mr. Heap also believes such companies
as Monsanto must provide evidence that their GMO products can be used
with minimal risk of creating unmanageable problems.

Craig Evans, general manager of biotechnology for Monsanto Canada,
says that "10 to 15 years" of research is conducted before GMO
products are put on the market.

"If farmers practice good agronomics, outcrossing of GMO canola won't
be an issue," he adds. "There are 20,000 farmers in Canada using
Roundup Ready Canola, and we've had only a handful of cases of
unexpected canola volunteers [weeds]. That's a good record."

Mr. Thomas agrees that the canola outcrossing that occurred on Mr.
Huether's farm is a rare occurrence, and doesn't signal cause for
alarm. But at least two farmers remain unconvinced. "I've had my fill
of being controlled by large companies," Mr. Huether says. "Monsanto
led us to believe that this kind of thing wouldn't happen. There were
no warnings until they were made aware of what happened on my farm."

In Bruno, Sask., about 100 kilometres east of Saskatoon, canola
farmer Percy Schmeiser is going to fight it out with Monsanto in
court. Two years ago, when Roundup Ready canola appeared in one of
his fields, Monsanto accused him of using its patented seed without
paying for it and sued. Mr. Schmeiser fought back with a $10-million
lawsuit of his own in which he accused Monsanto of libel, trespass
and contamination of his fields with Roundup Ready.

"I never put those plants on my land," he says. "The question is
where do Monsanto's rights end and mine begin."

Mr. Huether's documented experience with GMO herbicide-resistant
canola will no doubt be of great interest to all as Monsanto's case
against Mr. Schmeiser unfolds. The trial opened last week in
Saskatoon. The dangers of cross pollenation Canola, along with other
plants, can be genetically modified to be resistant to specific
herbicides. The farmer can then use this herbicide to eliminate all
but the valuable canola. When pollenation occurs between two plants,
the traits of each are passed along.


The majority of pollen, containing genetic codes, is transferred
plants by insects, a small percentage is carried by the wind. Seeds
from new varieties are also carried by the wind as well as animals
and birds.


Cross-pollenation can occur within the same or related species in
ways. Pollen can be passed between any combination of GMO herbicide
resistant plants, naturally resistant plants and plants without

The results can vary from resistance where it was not expected
to super-resistant plants which become an uncontrollable nuisance.


The occurrence of herbicide resistant weeds

U.S 80
Australia 32
Canada 32
France 30
Spain 24
U.K 19
Israel 18
Belgium 15
Germany 15
Switzerland 14
Source: Herbicide Resistance Action Committee

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