A new study on genetically modified crops shows that they can spread certain benefits to nearby weeds, potentially defeating the purpose of their genetic modification. GMO crops are typically designed to resist glyphosate, aka Roundup, the herbicide sold by GMO giant Monsanto. This allows farmers to spray their crops so that the surrounding weeds die, but the genetically modified Roundup Ready crops (also produced by Monsanto) survive. However, scientists have recently found that GMO crops can intermingle with related weeds and produce offspring that is also resistant to Roundup.
It had previously thought that this wouldn’t be a problem, because it was presumed that any genetic modifications would make wild plants less fit for their environment. Or, in science-speak:
“The traditional expectation is that any sort of transgene will confer disadvantage in the wild in the absence of selection pressure, because the extra machinery would reduce the fitness,” says Norman Ellstrand, a plant geneticist at the University of California in Riverside.
Instead, researchers have found that the offspring of a weed and a GMO crop can actually give the weed advantages over other weeds. Weedy rice, a pest for many farmers, was shown to be Roundup resistant when mixed with GMO crops. Additionally, GMO-wild hybrids produced crops that photosynthesized more, and produced more shoots, flowers and seeds than wild plants. This, according to University of Birmingham plant geneticist Brian Ford-Lloyd, is a potentially disastrous consequence of GMO’s:
“If the EPSP-synthase gene [from GMO crops] gets into the wild rice species, their genetic diversity, which is really important to conserve, could be threatened because the genotype with the transgene would outcompete the normal species. This is one of the most clear examples of extremely plausible damaging effects [of genetically modified crops] on the environment.”
GMOs are a contentious topic, with many using them as an example of liberals over-reaching in their opposition. This research, however, shows how little is known about the effects of GMOs on the environment. There needs to be more research in this vein: if we are going to hit the brakes on GMOs, we have to do so immediately.