Superweed fears after GM cross breeding found in trials

Fears of a genetically modified 'superweed' running rampant through British crops were raised this week after Government research revealed that modified genes from a GM plant had cross bred with a common weed.

The research, a follow-up to the government’s field scale trials, monitored gene flow from Bayer’s herbicide resistant GM oilseed rape to related wild plants. At one site, researchers found a GM version of the common weed charlock – Sinapis Arvensis – growing in the field the year after the trials finished.

This was found to be resistant to the herbicide used in the GM trial and confirmed as containing the gene inserted into the GM oilseed rape.

This is the first known case of such an occurrence in the UK. It was previously thought to be highly unlikely that charlock – a common weed found alongside oilseed rape – would cross-breed with GM crops. A review of the evidence by the European Environment Agency in 2000 concluded that “there appears to be general agreement that natural gene flow is not likely to occur between B. napus and S. arvensis.”

However, this finding has overturned that view and led to fears that herbicide resistant GM superweeds could spread unchecked throughout British farmland. If this did happen, farmers would have to use even more herbicides to get rid of them, with further detrimental effects for the environment.

Emily Diamand, Friends of the Earth’s GM campaigner said the government’s trials had already shown that growing crops can harm wildlife.

“Now we’re seeing the real possibility of GM superweeds being created, with serious consequences for farmers and the environment. What is disturbing is the way the government appears to have ignored its own evidence in trying to force GM crops onto countries that have a real cause for concern. The government must stop acting as cheerleader for GM crops and start paying attention to its own research, and above all, to the British public.”

In June Elliot Morley, Minister for the Environment, voted to try and force France and Greece to lift their bans on GM oilseed rape – bans they had put in place precisely due to concerns about gene escape into the environment.

However, Les Firbank, Co-ordinator of the original government field studies, told edie that there was no reason to believe the hybrid plants would get a stranglehold in British countryside.

“The only reason these plants would become invasive would be if this conferred some kind of competitive advantage upon them. They have developed a resistance to the herbicide which gives them an advantage in farmers fields, but they do not have any advantage outside of that setting as nobody is out spraying herbicide,” he said.

Although this could pose problems for farmers’ productivity, Mr Firbank said that the populations could be controlled through strict crop rotation and crop management techniques and the application of a variety of herbicides – not just the one to which the plants have developed resistance.

However, farmers in other countries, notably Canada, have found that plants can be resistant to several herbicides and difficult to kill with two or three applications of different weedkillers.

The Government has made no attempt to suppress the findings of this study, but nor has it made any attempt to draw attention to them – publishing the report in an obscure part of the Defra website – available by clicking here GM Study Link.

The research will now have to be studied by the government’s Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE).

By David Hopkins

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