GE Trees Protest in Asheville, NC-May, 2013. Langelle/GJEP

Nature is a complex web of life that has evolved over billions of years. The introduction of genetically engineered (GE) organisms threatens the evolutionary integrity of that web. The effects of GE plants are unknown and unpredictable. They threaten the environment with an imminent contamination of wild relatives. The international journal Environmental Sciences Europe recently published a peer-reviewed paper that assesses the risks of genetically engineered plants that can spread and propagate in the environment. Researchers are unable to predict the future effects of GE plants as they mature in highly complex and interconnected ecosystems. “Some of the risks include a higher invasive potential of the GE plants and/or disruption of the associated ecosystems.” Add in the stresses of increasingly unpredictable weather, such as drought or heat waves, and it is likely that the desired outcomes of GE experiments will ultimately fail.

Theresa Church, GE Trees Campaigner

Spreading the risks: When genetically engineered organisms go wild

GMWatch 4 March 2020

First scientific review of risks due to offspring of GE plants persisting in natural populations

A new peer-reviewed paper (see abstract below) published in the international journal Environmental Sciences Europe addresses specific environmental risks associated with genetically engineered (GE) plants that can spread and propagate in the environment. It is the first publication that focuses on on the risk assessment of so-called next generation effects. The review examines unintended effects that were observed in spontaneous hybrid offspring but absent in the original plants. Some of the risks include a higher invasive potential of the GE plants and/or disruption of the associated ecosystems.

Christoph Then of Testbiotech, one of the authors, commented, “If gene flow to natural populations cannot be prevented, this can put biodiversity and the livelihoods of future generations at risk. These risks concern the cultivation of GE plants such as oilseed rape in the US, Canada and Australia; camelina in the US; rice in Asian countries and cowpeas in Africa. There is also a risk caused by import of GE plants for the EU if, for example, spillage occurs during transport from viable kernels of GE oilseed rape. Plants growing from these kernels can survive in the environment and spread uncontrollably.”

In many cases the observed effects in the hybrid generations were not predictable from the first generations of the genetically engineered plants. They include a higher amount of seeds or pollen, enhanced stress resistance, and changes in other biological characteristics of the GE plants. The reasons are diverse, including environmental stress factors as well as genomic interactions in the hybrid offspring.

In view of these findings, the authors suggest the introduction of new ‘cut-off criteria’ in risk assessment that explicitly address the spatio-temporal control of GE organisms. If the criteria are not fulfilled, the environmental release cannot be permitted.

“This additional step in risk assessment is becoming increasingly important as research is ongoing to develop, e.g. gene drives in GE insects that can persist and propagate in the environment. These projects could pose a major threat to nature conservation in the future,” said Christoph Then.

The paper was published to follow up the international RAGES research project (Risk Assessment of Genetically Engineered organisms in the EU and Switzerland) which was carried out between 2016 and 2019.

To read more visit GM Watch

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