Environment, Headlines, North America

ENVIRONMENT: New Report Fuels Debate on Genetically Modified Organisms

Danielle Knight

WASHINGTON, Jun 5 2001 (IPS) - Debate on genetically modified organisms seems destined to intensify following the release of a report arguing that some bio-engineered life forms could have profound impacts on the environment because complex interactions between genes and ecosystems are not taken into account.

Opponents of so-called biotech commonly express concern for food safety. But in the new report, the non-governmental Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) goes further, saying that the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) disrupts the natural processes of evolution.

The US-based think-tank argues in its report, released Monday, that there is a serious gap in the understanding of how the entire genetic structure of a living being functions within an ecosystem.

Take, for example, the spots on a jaguar’s fur.

As the animal searches for prey at dusk, the spots camouflage the large cat species well. While the spots arise from the jaguar’s genetic structure, they can also be considered a biological expression of the patterns of light and dark in the forest, says the new report, ‘Ecology and Genetics: An Essay on the Nature of Life and the Problem of Genetic Engineering.’

Evolution by adaptation to the forest over the ages has created a complex set of interconnected genetic structures in the jaguar, says the report. When a genetically modified species is introduced into the environment, it works quite differently than the natural evolution that led all jaguars to have spots.

Mutations, like the jaguar’s spots, occur in nature from time to time, but never show up simultaneously in millions organisms all at once. In nature, evolution picks and chooses among many sporadic mutations, and chooses differently in different environments, says the report.

So, what happens when genetically modified organisms, like so- called Bt corn in the United States, are introduced into the environment on a wide scale?

“We should expect nasty surprises,” says Arjun Makhijani, author of the report and president of IEER.

Little is known about the potential impacts genetically engineered species will have on ecosystems, he adds. Inter-species genetic engineering creates new types of living beings that could not arise naturally.

That research on the human genome has uncovered far fewer genes than initially expected has added to the debate by making clear that genes do not act by themselves but must interact with the environment, and among themselves, to produce traits that distinguish a person from a chimpanzee.

“We simply do not understand the genome-ecosystem relationships well enough to make confident estimates of the ecological impact of new structures,” says Makhijani, who was trained in physics and engineering.

A glimpse of GMOs’ possible impact on ecosystems was illustrated recently by research on biotech corn and monarch butterflies. Bt corn contains a gene from the bacteria bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which enables it to internally produce a pesticide intended to kill a specific pest. About 25 percent of the US corn crop is Bt corn.

Cornell University scientists discovered that when they applied pollen from Bt corn to milkweed, which the butterflies eat and which grows near cornfields, 44 percent of the monarch larvae that fed on the modified corn died, unintended victims of the technology. None of the caterpillars in the study that were fed corn pollen from non-engineered plants died.

While the ecological significance of the butterfly study is not yet clear, the IEER report says it is evident that genetically engineered corn has been introduced on a vast scale without sufficient consideration of its effects on ecosystems.

“If it can adversely affect monarch butterfly caterpillars so severely, how many other types of flora and fauna might it also affect?” Makhijani asks.

The US National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council issued a report last year that was generally supportive of biotechnology. But it highlighted the need for more research into the long-term ecological impacts of GMOs.

Scientists sceptical of biotechnology, including University of California, Berkeley molecular and cell biologist Richard Strohman, welcome the IEER study.

“Biogenetic engineering, where unanticipated results could cause damage to individuals or to millions of acres of cropland, should cease except under tightly controlled laboratory conditions,” says Strohman.

Channapatna Prakash of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, however, argues that humans have modified agriculture for centuries and already caused vast changes in the environment. Practically none of the crops grown now in the United States, for example, are native and most are hybrids or crossbreeds, he says.

“I do not see any empirical evidence that says gene flow from genetically engineered crops confers different risks than gene flow from conventional crops,” says Prakash.

Val Giddings, a geneticist with the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, a business group, says “the report is oblivious to the fact that genes in nature move between species all the time.” She dismisses the IEER study as “an opinion piece masquerading as science.”

Giddings adds that engineering crops actually allows the process of introducing mutations into existing species to be more controlled than ever before.

But Martha Herbert, a pediatric neurologist at Harvard Medical School, says that genetic engineering is no more precise than traditional cross breeding.

“This fantasy about precision reveals serious denial about what goes on in the process, which involves using gene guns or viruses to force foreign genes into cells,” says Herbert, who is concerned about the potential food allergies resulting from consuming GMOs.

She argues that there are no controls in place to ensure where the inserted gene takes up residence in the receiving organism’s genome. If the inserted gene lands in the middle of another gene, says Herbert, the interrupted gene may no longer function properly, or neighbouring genes that are normally inactive may become more busy than normal.

Already, opponents to biotechnology are using the report to bolster their case.

Brent Blackwelder, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, says the report presents a “deeper and scarier” analysis to date of the potential impacts of GMOs.

“This work will open a new and more profound debate that calls into question the very nature of the agricultural biotech experiment now underway,” he says.

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