James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

August 6, 2010

Canola Growing on the Side of the Road

Filed under: Uncategorized — James @ 9:44 am

In an admirably calm and collected piece, Andrew Pollack writing at the nytimes, reports on a study that will be discussed at the Ecological Society of America meeting. The finding? Canola plant growing by the side of the road (outside of fields) often carry genetically engineered traits for herbicide resistance. It sounds like a fun study to do:

Meredith G. Schafer, a graduate student at the University of Arkansas, and colleagues traversed 3,000 miles of interstate, state and county roads in North Dakota, stopping every five miles and taking a sample of one canola plant if any were growing.

Is this a sign of the end times of agriculture? No.

Dale Thorenson, a former North Dakota farmer who is now assistant director of the United States Canola Association, said there are many weeds, such as leafy spurge, that are not genetically engineered but are far more problematic for farmers than stray canola plants.

Go and read the whole article. I have a feeling this might be the sort of result that will be seized upon by those already opposed to genetic engineering, and the best counter to that is to know and be able to present the full context of the study, instead of simply “OMG, genetically engineered plants in the wild!”

And while not crucially important to the study, this part made me laugh:

Unlike canola, genetically modified corn and soybeans have not established themselves in the wild, even though they are grown on vastly more acres than canola.

“They are super-domesticated and they just don’t really like to go wild,’’ said Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at the University of California, Riverside, who studies gene flow in plants.

As a country we may be quite dependent on corn, but it is even more dependent on us for its own survival.


  1. OMG, genetically engineered plants in the wild!

    why don’t we make the plants inducible, so that they will never grow unless WE grow them. That inducible gene would be like (sort of) “log in” button for our crops.

    Comment by Haibao Tang — August 6, 2010 @ 9:55 am

  2. @Haibao I’m pretty sure thats the next thing we are going to see coming out of the pipeline. The commercial name is GERTS. Maybe you are aware of this already?

    I have a difficult time calling the space between the road and the thousands of acres of farm land “the wild”. Yes, canola can grow in a non-field setting but this is only after heavy seeding. I am unconvinced that they would last many generations. I am also not sure how the escape of GM plants is any different then escape of non-GM ones, which by the sounds of it has been happening for a long while now (for canola).

    Comment by Greg — August 6, 2010 @ 11:00 am

  3. @Greg I haven’t heard of GERTS. care for a link?

    Comment by Haibao Tang — August 8, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

  4. Agreed. As I’ve read more coverage I cam across a mention that most of the canola plants they found were growing near processing facilities, or places trucks full of canola seeds pulled off the road.

    Comment by James — August 10, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

  5. I’m still waiting for the version of this study that collects arabidopsis escapes on a major academic campus

    Comment by Matt — August 6, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

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