GM Wheat 'Could Lead to Crop Devastation'
Monday, April 24th 2006
The widely-used Roundup herbicide may encourage the growth of toxic fungi that devastate wheat fields, according to Canadian Government laboratory studies.
If field studies confirm that glyphosate (sold in New Zealand Roundup) increases the risk of fungal infections - already a huge problem - farmers might decide to use it less.
That could be a major blow for backers of genetically modified wheat in Canada, because the first GM variety up for approval in Canada is modified to be glyphosate-resistant. If it gets the go-ahead, glyphosate use is likely to escalate.
The potential problem was spotted a few years ago by Myriam Fernandez, of the Semiarid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Swift Current, Saskatchewan.
She noticed that in some fields where glyphosate has been applied the previous year, wheat appeared to be hit harder by Fusarium head blight - a devastating fungal disease that damages grain and turns it pink.
In Europe alone, fusarium head blight destroys a fifth of wheat harvests. The fungi that cause the disease also produce toxins that can kill humans and animals.
In a follow-up study, Ms Fernandez measured levels of the blight in wheat fields.
"We found higher levels of blight within each tillage category when glyphosate had been used in the previous year," says her colleague, Keith Hanson.
And his lab study showed that Fusarium graminearum and F.avenaceum, the fungi that cause head blight, grow faster when glyphosate-based weedkillers are added to the nutrient medium.
But the investigators warn against jumping to conclusions.
"We're deferring judgment until we have all the data," says Mr Hanson. His team is now planning field and greenhouse trials.
Mr Hanson stresses that the real issue is whether the fungi leave more spores in the soil. It is also possible that the effect is simply due to herbicides leaving more dead plant matter in the soil for fungi to grow on and is not directly caused by glyphosate. His field studies should provide answers next spring, he says.
Monsanto, which sells glyphosate as Roundup, as well as a number of "Roundup Ready" crops modified to be resistant to it, claims glyphosate is already widely used and causes no apparent problems with fungi.
Monsanto applied to the Canadian Government last year for approval of its Roundup Ready GM wheat. It says it will be watching Mr Hanson's research closely.
The team's initial finding are likely to be seized upon by anti-GM activists.
But switching to other herbicides could be bad news for the environment: glyphosate is one of the least harmful herbicides, as it quickly breaks down in the soil.
Ironically, Swiss biotech giant Syngenta has been developing both GM and conventional wheat strains resistant to the fusarium head fungi - with promising results.
Sourced from the New Zealand Herald, Thursday 14 August 2003
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