Modified Crops Swap Genes With Weeds

Genetically modified crops are planted throughout the Midwest, but some scientists are concerned genes from these crops could escape and work their way into weedy plants. With these genes, weeds could become more vigorous and harder to kill. New research shows this can happen between closely related crops and weeds. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Cristina Rumbaitis-del Rio prepared this report:

Transcript

Genetically modified crops are planted throughout the Midwest, but some scientists are
concerned genes from these crops could escape and work their way into weedy plants. With
these genes, weeds could become more vigorous and harder to kill. New research shows this can
happen between closely related crops and weeds. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Cristina
Rumbaitis-del Rio prepared this report:


Genetically modified crops have been around for quite a while. In the U.S. last year more than 88
million acres were planted with genetically modified soybean, corn, cotton and other crops. Some
of these plants are engineered to be more resistant to herbicides, making it easier for farmers to
get rid of weeds without damaging their crop. Others are engineered to resist plant-eating insects.


But some scientists worry about the ecological effects of these crops. Allison Snow is a professor
of ecology at Ohio State University. She studies genetically modified sunflowers. Snow says she
got involved in this research when genetically modified crops were first being introduced because
she was afraid no one else was looking at the environmental effects of these crops.


“It was kind out of a fear factor for me of wanting to make sure that someone was watching to see
what the environmental effects might be.”


The sunflowers Snow studies have a gene added to them, which produces an organic insecticide
that kills insects feeding on the plants.


According to Snow, the problem with these pesticide-producing sunflowers is the insect-killing
gene can be transferred from crop sunflowers to their weedy cousins, which are often growing on
the edges of fields. Bees, flies and other insects can transfer the gene to the weeds by cross-
pollinating the plants, which are close relatives. Snow’s research shows once the gene gets into
the weed population, the weeds become insect-resistant as well.


“The new gene worked really, really well in the weeds. It protected them from the insects. And
because they were protected, they had more energy to devote to making seeds.”


Snow says the most startling result was the number of seeds these weeds were making.


“In one of our study sites, they made 55% percent more seeds per plant – just because of one
gene. Which is kind of unheard of. We’ve never seen a result like that – where one gene would
cause the whole population to suddenly start making 55% more seeds.”


The gene might make weeding a more difficult task, but Snow says she wouldn’t quite call them
“super weeds,” a term some environmentalists have used.


“We might see that the weedy sunflowers become worse weeds, I wouldn’t call them super
weeds, because to me that would imply that they have many different features instead of just one
that causes them to make more seeds. But I could imagine in the future there might be enough
traits out there that could turn a regular weed into something much more difficult to control – like
really would be a super weed.”


Snow says she will have to do more research to see if the extra seeds made by the weeds will turn
into more weeds and hardier weeds in farmer’s fields.


But, she might not be able to finish her research on sunflowers because the companies that make
the crop have decided not to renew her funding and won’t give her access to the sunflowers or the
genes.


“It was all about stewardship and responsibility.”


Doyle Karr is a spokesperson for pioneer hi bred, one of the companies which makes the
sunflowers. He says the company realized a few years ago there wasn’t enough demand for the
product to justify commercially producing it. As a result, he says, the company couldn’t continue
funding sunflower research, and doesn’t want to be held responsible for keeping the gene safe
while the research is being conducted.


It’s an issue of a biotech trait that we are not pursuing and not bringing to the market, and if we’re
not bringing it to the market, we can’t justify taking the responsibility of having that trait out
being worked with, with a third party.”


While some academic researchers argue the universities take on legal liability when they work
with genetically modified plants, Karr says the university’s liability is often limited by state law.
He says the company is ultimately held responsible if only by the court of public opinion.


“Should something happen with this gene that was not expected or a mistake happened – that
would ultimately come back to those who initially made the gene available.”


While this issue remains unresolved, Snow is continuing her research. Genetically modified
sunflowers are not the only crop to study. Snow is now working in Vietnam where weedy species
of rice grow naturally, and where genetically modified rice might be introduced in coming years.
She’s concerned the traits of the genetically altered rice might be transferred to the wild species
of rice, just as happened with the sunflowers.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Cristina Rumbaitis-del Rio.

The Challenge of Managing Fragmented Forests

In the Great Lakes states, many of the original forests were cut down. They were cleared for homesteading, farming, and for the wood that fueled the age of steam. But over the past several decades, some of the forests have been growing back. Many of the new forests are confined to small patches or woodlots surrounded by farm fields. These woodlots are small havens for animals. But some foresters, biologists, and environmental groups are concerned that those forests are simply too small and too fragmented. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Cristina Rumbaitis-del Rio prepared this report:

Transcript

In the Great Lakes States, many of the original forests were cut down. They were cleared for
homesteading, farming, and for the wood that fueled the age of steam. But over the past several
decades, some of the forests have been growing back. Many of the new forests are confined to
small patches or woodlots surrounded by farm fields. These woodlots are small havens for many
animals. But some foresters, biologists, and environmental groups are concerned that those
forests are simply too small and too fragmented. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Cristina
Rumbaitis(rum-bite-us)-del rio (del-rhee-o) prepared this report:


(Natural sounds – walking through leaves underneath) & Thomas Grubb talking:
“This little woodlot is large enough to house one pair of downy woodpeckers and one pair of
white breasted nuthatches.”


Thomas Grubb is a Biology Professor at Ohio State University. Instead of lecturing to a classroom
today, he’s strolling through a small, private woodlot next to a cornfield in central Ohio. This is
one of the study sites where he looks at how forest fragmentation affects woodland bird species.


He says just as in many areas of the Midwest, Ohio’s forests are highly fragmented because
instead of having the forest concentrated in one big area, the forests are carved up into small
patches, scattered throughout a largely agricultural landscape. While 90% of Ohio was covered
with forest before European settlement, now less than a third of the state is considered forested.
And according to Grubb, this part of Ohio has even less forest.


“This plot is about 3% forested and that’s not much forest. This landscape is probably as little
forested as any you’re likely to find.”


Grubb and his students are working with woodlot owners to see if the size of a woodlot affects
the number of birds living there and their survival. He says bird survival is better in larger
woodlots than in smaller ones.


“One of the things we think is happening in these small woodlots, these permanent resident birds
that are there all winter- they can’t get out of the wind, and so they have tremendously high
metabolic rates trying to stay warm.”


Smaller woodlots may be colder than larger ones because there’s fewer trees to block the wind.
Smaller woodlots also have less food for birds, and in the winter birds may starve trying to get
enough food to stay warm.


(Natural sounds of leaves and birds)


“Oh that’s a Carolina Wren.”


Forestry officials, scientists, and environmental groups agree forest fragmentation is one of the
most serious problems facing Ohio’s forests. Fragmentation is a problem for a number of reasons
beyond the fact that it represents a loss of forest habitat. According to Ohio State University
Ecologist, Ralph Boerner, the smaller a forest patch is, the fewer number of species that can live
there.


“The smaller a forest patch, the less diverse it is. And you particularly lose species that need
large areas in which to gather food.”


Boerner says smaller patches may also have a harder time recovering from disturbances – like an
insect outbreak or a tornado.


“We also believe there is a link between how diverse an ecosystem is and how stable it is in the face of disturbnace, so when you lose diversity there’s the potential to lose stability, lose the ability to bounce back
from disturbance.”


Breaking up the forest into patches also isolates animal and bird species that can’t or won’t cross
agricultural fields to get from one forest patch to another, and that means less genetic diversity
because they can’t mate with animals outside of their forest patch. So some woodlots are just too
small for certain species to survive.


Fragmentation also makes managing forest land more difficult. Most of Ohio’s forested land is
privately owned. Ohio Division of Forestry official, Tom Berger, says this makes managing
almost an impossible task.


Well, you’ll have 10 people and they’ll have 10 different views on how to manage it or what’s
valuable to them and they all have that right.”


Division of Forestry officials can give landowners advice, but they can’t tell a landowner what
their priorities should be. Berger says this often means neighboring patches of forest are managed
for completely different interests. Berger wishes he had more tools at his disposal to get land
owners to manage their land collectively.


“I wish we could put together some programs or some incentives, monies available through the
state or federal government that would really encourage landowners to work together to form
blocks or units that would be managed in the same way.”


Managing isn’t the only challenge. Berger says keeping the land at least partially forested is
becoming a problem as people choose to build homes in woodlots, particularly in areas near
cities.


“Not only is the woods scattered that we have fragmented, but a lot of them continue to
disappear too, especially in the urbanized areas in Columbus and around the state.”


Ohio State University Biologist, Thomas Grubb, says there are may reasons for protecting
woodlots, but his favorite reason is because it’s a pocket of nature in a sea of developed land.


“This is worth preserving just because it’s like it is and we ought to just leave it alone. This enriches our lives.”


The average woodlot size in Ohio is 20 acres, and it changes hands frequently – every seven years on average. The small size and the quick turnover make it nearly impossible for the state to
encourage owners to establish any kind of useful management practices. That means there’s little
to be done to help keep the forests from further deterioration.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Cristina Rumbaitis-del Rio.