What constitutes ecological damage?

When genetically modified plants are grown, they interact with the surrounding ecosystem. Once released into the environment, their spread can no longer be completely controlled. This gives rise to widespread fears and risk scenarios. The concept of ecological damage frequently crops up in this connection. But there is no common consensus about what actually constitutes ecological damage. GMO Safety has consulted various experts on this issue.

Roger Busch, Institute of Technology, Theology and Natural Sciences, Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich

“The introduction of novel traits in crops, whether by breeding or with the help of genetic engineering, should be regarded in the same way in the first instance.”

Gesine Schütte, University of Hamburg, Research Focus Biotechnology, Society and Environment

“It should be possible to do justice to different values, ideas and ‘lifeworlds’. It’s not just about science, it’s also about value systems.”

Robert Hermanowski, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, (FiBL), Berlin

“From the point of view of organic agriculture, abandoning the use of GM plants would be a logical way of avoiding ecological damage.”

Hans-Jörg Jacobsen, Dept. of Molecular Genetics, University of Hanover

“Incidentally, I regard all ‘conserving’ ideologies as showing a lack knowledge of the principles of evolution.”

Helmut Gaugitsch, Department of General Ecology and Nature Conservation at the Austrian Federal Department of the Environment (Umweltbundesamt) in Vienna

“Due to the new technology and existing scientific uncertainties, GM plants require a cautious approach which also takes into account potential indirect and long-term effects.”

Detlef Bartsch, Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL), Coexistence & GMO Monitoring

Human exploitation affects the natural environment; for example, all agricultural use has an impact on natural states and ecosystems.The question is: what type and degree of impact on the ecosystem as a result of agriculture is desirable or acceptable? And does an additional risk, or one in particular need of assessment, occur as a result of growing genetically modified plants? This is a controversial issue.

The definition of damage initially presupposes a concept of a desirable, ‘intact’ state. But what does this state look like? Which natural environment is to be protected? Based on agro-ecosystems, is the benchmark existing agricultural practice, organic agriculture or maybe the pre-industrial agrarian landscape?

There are no uniform or even objective standards of evaluation, and scientific approaches are intermingled with society’s expectations of nature.

There is widespread agreement on the objective of protecting biodiversity and species diversity in wild habitats and agro-ecosystems. But even though there may be consensus here, estimates and assessments relating to the potential effects of transgenic plants on biodiversity diverge considerably.

Take outcrossing for example: outcrossing occurs, but what does that mean? How are the possible consequences to be assessed?

  • Opponents of genetic engineering see a potential risk in every outcrossing, which – working on the precautionary principle – must be avoided. Because the long-term consequences for biodiversity and ecosystems in particular are not foreseeable, they believe that as soon as the transgene is released into the environment from the GM plant, the damage has been done.
  • Others regard the exchange of genes as a natural part of evolutionary development. The outcrossing of transgenes does not constitute damage per se; rather the consequences have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis depending on plant species, location, cultivation method etc.

Safety research

Biological safety research is concerned with the potential effects of cultivating genetically modified plants. Scientists study pollen dispersal and the way in which transgenes are able to spread; they research conditions and the likelihood of the transfer of transgenes from plants to bacteria, compare the species diversity of different insects in GM and non-GM fields and look for resistant weeds and insects.

However, even scientific research cannot provide definitive answers:

  • If severe effects occur, such as when a species comes under threat, then they are generally identified. But often there are no significant effects that can be clearly attributed to the transgene. Seasonal, climatic and other locational conditions create ‘background noise’, which produces more serious effects.
  • Since research only ever focuses on a small section of complex conditions and developments, the data obtained does not provide a complete picture of the dynamics of ecosystems. Every advance in scientific knowledge generally raises even more questions.
  • The long-term effects are particularly difficult to estimate. We cannot predict with certainty what impact transgenic plants will have on ecosystems.

Precautionary principle

Since the cultivation of genetically modified plants is associated with uncertainty and potential risks, the precautionary principle comes into play. In early 2000 the European Commission published guidelines for a uniform interpretation of the precautionary principle within the EU. According to the precautionary principle, if there is a risk of damage, or justified cause for concern, then lack of complete scientific certainty should not prevent the implementation of protective measures.

These measures could include extensive environmental impact assessments, strict approval procedures for the cultivation of the genetically modified varieties, state-funded safety research and post-market monitoring, i.e. long-term monitoring of the GM plants released into the environment.

Such a pragmatic interpretation and application of the precautionary principle assumes that action can be taken only on the basis of current scientific knowledge and a degree of uncertainty remains.

This interpretation of the precautionary principle is not radical enough for opponents of genetic engineering. They reverse the argument: whilst its safety remains unproven, the opposite should be assumed and green genetic engineering should be avoided.

More from GMO Safety

Four questions about "ecological damage". The answers:

Further articles on this topic: Detlef Bartsch

This article was published in the anthology “Ökologische Schäden”, Peter Lang Verlag