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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  July 2005

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE July 2005

Subject:

GM crops created superweed, say scientists

From:

Wren Osborn <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 25 Jul 2005 06:55:59 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (297 lines)

GM crops created superweed, say scientists

Modified rape crosses with wild plant to create tough
pesticide-resistant strain

Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Monday July 25, 2005
The Guardian
http://www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/Story/0,2763,1535428,00.html

Modified genes from crops in a GM crop trial have transferred into
local wild
plants, creating a form of herbicide-resistant "superweed", the
Guardian can
reveal.

The cross-fertilisation between GM oilseed rape, a brassica, and a
distantly
related plant, charlock, had been discounted as virtually impossible by
scientists with the environment department. It was found during a
follow up to
the government's three-year trials of GM crops which ended two years
ago.

The new form of charlock was growing among many others in a field which
had been
used to grow GM rape. When scientists treated it with lethal herbicide
it showed
no ill-effects.

Article continues
Unlike the results of the original trials, which were the subject of
large-scale
press briefings from scientists, the discovery of hybrid plants that
could cause
a serious problem to farmers has not been announced.

The scientists also collected seeds from other weeds in the oilseed
rape field
and grew them in the laboratory. They found that two - both wild
turnips - were
herbicide resistant.

The five scientists from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the
government
research station at Winfrith in Dorset, placed their findings on the
department's website last week.

A reviewer of the paper has appended to its front page: "The frequency
of such
an event [the cross-fertilisation of charlock] in the field is likely
to be very
low, as highlighted by the fact it has never been detected in numerous
previous
assessments."

However, he adds: "This unusual occurrence merits further study in
order to
adequately assess any potential risk of gene transfer."

Brian Johnson, an ecological geneticist and member of the government's
specialist scientific group which assessed the farm trials, has no
doubt of the
significance. "You only need one event in several million. As soon as
it has
taken place the new plant has a huge selective advantage. That plant
will
multiply rapidly."

Dr Johnson, who is head of the biotechnology advisory unit and head of
the land
management technologies group at English Nature, the government nature
advisers,
said: "Unlike the researchers I am not surprised by this. If you apply
herbicide
to plants which is lethal, eventually a resistant survivor will turn
up."

The glufosinate-ammonium herbicide used in this case put "huge selective
pressure likely to cause rapid evolution of resistance".

To assess the potential of herbicide-resistant weeds as a danger to
crops, a
French researcher placed a single triazine-resistant weed, known as fat
hen, in
maize fields where atrazine was being used to control weeds. After four
years
the plants had multiplied to an average of 103,000 plants, Dr Johnson
said.

What is not clear in the English case is whether the charlock was
fertile.
Scientists collected eight seeds from the plant but they failed to
germinate
them and concluded the plant was "not viable".

But Dr Johnson points out that the plant was very large and produced
many
flowers.

He said: "There is every reason to suppose that the GM trait could be
in the
plant's pollen and thus be carried to other charlock in the
neighbourhood,
spreading the GM genes in that way. This is after all how the
cross-fertilisation between the rape and charlock must have occurred in
the
first place."

Since charlock seeds can remain in the soil for 20 to 30 years before
they
germinate, once GM plants have produced seeds it would be almost
impossible to
eliminate them.

Although the government has never conceded that gene transfer was a
problem, it
was fear of this that led the French and Greek governments to seek to
ban GM
rape.

Emily Diamond, a Friends of the Earth GM researcher, said: "I was
shocked when I
saw this paper. This is what we were reassured could not happen - and
yet now it
has happened the finding has been hidden away. This is exactly what the
French
and Greeks were afraid of when they opposed the introduction of GM
rape."

The findings will now have to be assessed by the government's Advisory
Committee
on Releases to the Environment (Acre). The question is whether it is
safe to
release GM crops into the UK environment when there are wild relatives
that
might become superweeds and pose a serious threat to farm productivity.
This has
already occurred in Canada.

The discovery that herbicide-resistant genes have transferred to farm
weeds from
GM crops is the second blow to the hopes of bio-tech companies to
introduce
their crops into Britain. Following farm scale trials there was already
scientific evidence that herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape and GM sugar
beet were
bad for biodiversity because the herbicide used to kill the weeds
around the
crops wiped out more wildlife than with conventionally grown crops. Now
this new
research, a follow-up on the original trials, shows that a second
undesirable
potential result is a race of superweeds.

The findings mirror the Canadian experience with GM crops, which has
seen
farmers and the environment plagued with severe problems.

Farmers the world over are always troubled by what they call
"volunteers" - crop
plants which grow from seeds spilled from the previous harvest, of
which oilseed
rape is probably the greatest offender, Anyone familiar with the British
countryside, or even the verges of motorways, will recognise thousands
of
oilseed rape plants growing uninvited amid crops of wheat or barley,
and in
great swaths by the roadside where the "small greasy ballbearings" of
seeds have
spilled from lorries.

Farmers in Canada soon found that these volunteers were resistant to at
least
one herbicide, and became impossible to kill with two or three
applications of
different weedkillers after a succession of various GM crops were grown.

The new plants were dubbed superweeds because they proved resistant to
three
herbicides while the crops they were growing among had been genetically
engineered to be resistant to only one.

To stop their farm crops being overwhelmed with superweeds, farmers had
to
resort to using older, much stronger varieties of "dirty" herbicide
long since
outlawed as seriously damaging to biodiversity.

Q&A: What the discovery means for UK farmers

What's the GM situation in the UK?

No GM crops are currently grown commercially in the UK. Companies who
wish to
introduce them face a series of licensing hurdles in Britain and Europe
and
interest has waned in recent years amid public opposition.

Other firms have dropped applications in the wake of the government
field scale
trials that showed growing two GM varieties - oilseed rape and sugar
beet - was
bad for biodiversity.

The EU has approved several GM varieties and the UK government insists
that
applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Where are GM crops grown?

Extensively in the wide open spaces of the US, Canada and Argentina. In
Europe,
Portugal, France and Germany have all dabbled with GM insect-resistant
maize.
Spain plants about 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of it each year for
animal
feed.

What is a superweed?

Many GM crop varieties are given genes that allow them to resist a
specific
herbicide, which farmers can then apply to kill the weeds while
allowing the GM
crop to thrive.

Environmental campaigners have long feared that if pollen from the GM
crop
fertilised a related weed, it could transfer the resistance and create a
superweed. This "gene transfer" is what appears to have happened at the
field
scale trial site. It raises the prospect of farmers who grow some GM
crops being
forced to use stronger herbicides on their fields to deal with the
upstart
weeds.

Is it a big problem?

Not yet. Farmers in the UK do not grow GM crops commercially. If they
did, then
the scale of possible superweed contamination depends on two things:
whether the
hybrid superweed can reproduce (many hybrids are sterile) and, if it
could, how
well its offspring could compete with other plants. Herbicide-resistant
weeds
could potentially grow very well in agricultural fields where the
relevant
herbicide is applied. Most experts say superweeds would be unlikely to
sweep
across the UK countryside as, without the herbicide being used to kill
their
competitors, their GM status offers no advantage.

Some GM crops, such as maize, have no wild relatives in the UK, making
gene
transfer and the creation of a superweed from them impossible.

Is it a surprise?

On one level no, gene flow and hybridisation are as old as plants
themselves.
Short of creating sterile male plants, it's simply impossible to stop
crops
releasing pollen to fertilise related neighbours. But government
scientists had
thought that GM oilseed rape and charlock were too distantly related
for it to
occur.

The dangers of hybridisation where it does happen are well documented -
experts
from the Dorset centre behind the latest research published a
high-profile paper
in 2003 in the US journal Science showing widespread gene flow from
non-GM
oilseed rape to wild flowers.

Have superweeds surfaced elsewhere?

Farmers in Canada and Argentina growing GM soya beans have large
problems with
herbicide-resistant weeds, though these have arisen through natural
selection
and not gene flow through hybridisation. Experiments in Germany have
shown sugar
beets genetically modified to resist one herbicide accidentally
acquired the
genes to resist another - so called "gene stacking", which has also been
observed in oilseed rape grown in Canada.

 David Adam

Guardian Unlimited  Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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