Background, aim and scope: Genetically modified herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) oilseed rape (OSR; Brassica napus L.) was approved for commercial cultivation in Canada in 1995 and currently represents over 95% of the OSR grown in western Canada. After a decade of widespread cultivation, GMHT volunteers represent an increasing management problem in cultivated fields and are ubiquitous in adjacent ruderal habitats, where they contribute to the spread of transgenes. However, few studies have considered escaped GMHT OSR populations in North America, and even fewer have been conducted at large spatial scales (i.e. landscape scales). In particular, the contribution of landscape structure and large-scale anthropogenic dispersal processes to the persistence and spread of escaped GMHT OSR remains poorly understood. We conducted a multi-year survey of the landscape-scale distribution of escaped OSR plants adjacent to roads and cultivated fields. Our objective was to examine the long-term dynamics of escaped OSR at large spatial scales and to assess the relative importance of landscape and localised factors to the persistence and spread of these plants outside of cultivation.
Materials and methods: From 2005 to 2007, we surveyed escaped OSR plants along roadsides and field edges at 12 locations in three agricultural landscapes in southern Manitoba where GMHT OSR is widely grown. Data were analysed to examine temporal changes at large spatial scales and to determine factors affecting the distribution of escaped OSR plants in roadside and field edge habitats within agricultural landscapes. Additionally, we assessed the potential for seed dispersal between escaped populations by comparing the relative spatial distribution of roadside and field edge OSR.
Results: Densities of escaped OSR fluctuated over space and time in both roadside and field edge habitats, though the proportion of GMHT plants was high (93-100%). Escaped OSR was positively affected by agricultural landscape (indicative of cropping intensity) and by the presence of an adjacent field planted to OSR. Within roadside habitats, escaped OSR was also strongly associated with large-scale variables, including road surface (indicative of traffic intensity) and distance to the nearest grain elevator. Conversely, within field edges, OSR density was affected by localised crop management practices such as mowing, soil disturbance and herbicide application. Despite the proximity of roadsides and field edges, there was little evidence of spatial aggregation among escaped OSR populations in these two habitats, especially at very fine spatial scales (i.e. <100 m), suggesting that natural propagule exchange is infrequent.
Discussion: Escaped OSR populations were persistent at large spatial and temporal scales, and low density in a given landscape or year was not indicative of overall extinction. As a result of ongoing cultivation and transport of OSR crops, escaped GMHT traits will likely remain predominant in agricultural landscapes. While escaped OSR in field edge habitats generally results from local seeding and management activities occurring at the field-scale, distribution patterns within roadside habitats are determined in large part by seed transport occurring at the landscape scale and at even larger regional scales. Our findings suggest that these large-scale anthropogenic dispersal processes are sufficient to enable persistence despite limited natural seed dispersal. This widespread dispersal is likely to undermine field-scale management practices aimed at eliminating escaped and in-field GMHT OSR populations.
Conclusions: Agricultural transport and landscape-scale cropping patterns are important determinants of the distribution of escaped GM crops. At the regional level, these factors ensure ongoing establishment and spread of escaped GMHT OSR despite limited local seed dispersal. Escaped populations thus play an important role in the spread of transgenes and have substantial implications for the coexistence of GM and non-GM production systems.
Recommendations and perspectives: Given the large-scale factors driving the spread of escaped transgenes, localised co-existence measures may be impracticable where they are not commensurate with regional dispersal mechanisms. To be effective, strategies aimed at reducing contamination from GM crops should be multi-scale in approach and be developed and implemented at both farm and landscape levels of organisation. Multiple stakeholders should thus be consulted, including both GM and non-GM farmers, as well as seed developers, processors, transporters and suppliers. Decisions to adopt GM crops require thoughtful and inclusive consideration of the risks and responsibilities inherent in this new technology.