Attack of the Giant Killer Canola?


Sigh. Last week, a couple of researchers from the University of Arkansas breathlessly revealed that they had found canola genetically enhanced to resist herbicides growing "wild" along North Dakota roadsides. First, the idea that canola is growing "wild" is risible. What is canola? It is a domesticated rapeseed oil plant that was modified (bred) to taste less bitter and which got its name from the acronym CANadian Oil, Low Acid. It is chiefly grown as a source for food oils and feed. No matter where it is found canola is a crop species, not a wild one. In the old nomenclature such plants were called "volunteer." Apparently, the preferred and more ominous term is now "feral."

First, considering that rapeseed is not native to North America (its ancestors hail from Eurasia) and that about 90 percent of the canola planted in North Dakota is genetically enhanced to resist herbicides, it is not at all surprising that the researchers found that 86 percent of the canola growing along roadsides is too. So are North Dakota's wildlands doomed to being overwhelmed by mutant canola? No. The NPR story reporting the "escape" of the biotech canola quoted a couple of rather sanguine researchers:

"I wouldn't lose any sleep over it," says Mike Wilkinson, a researcher at Aberystwyth University in the U.K. Wilkinson has studied the spread of conventional canola in the U.K., and says that while it's common for the seedlings to spread, they don't fare well in the wild.

Wilkinson says that just because the plants are genetically modified, doesn't mean they'll be more successful than wild plants. In this particular case, herbicide resistance will provide little edge to plants growing in areas that, almost by definition, don't receive many herbicides. "It's very difficult for either of these transgene types to give much of an advantage, if any, in the habitats that they're in," he says, referring to the genetically modified canola.

Linda Hall, a researcher at the University of Alberta in Canada, agrees. She's studied colonies of genetically modified canola in that country for years, but says that they haven't spread far beyond the roads. "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," she says.

If someone thinks that roadside canola is a weed (definition: a plant that's where you don't want it to be), there's no big problem controlling it. As assistant director of the U.S. Canola Association Dale Thorenson notes:

"Volunteer biotech canola is easily managed through mowing, tillage or one of several herbicides that do not contain the active ingredient (glyphosate or glufinosate) to which the canola is resistant."

In other words, unlike Killer Tomatoes, it doesn't take playing an excruciatingly bad song [office warning] to annihilate escaped canola.

Belated hat tip to frequent Reason commenter Suki.