Debate: What constitutes ecological damage?

“I would find damage acceptable if it were easy to reverse, or if it could be compensated for elsewhere.” Gesine Schütte: “I would find damage acceptable if it were easy to reverse, or if it could be compensated for elsewhere.”

Dr. Gesine Schütte, University of Hamburg, Research Focus Biotechnology, Society and Environment (FSP BIOGUM),research group on agriculture and plant breeding Research and knowledge transfer on the ecological impacts of transgenic organisms in agriculture

GMO Safety: What do you regard as ecological damage, generally and in the context of using genetically modified plants?

Gesine Schütte:

It is impossible to define “ecological damage” in general, particularly in view of the fact that many of the relationships in nature are not yet known and many phenomena cannot be explained. Nevertheless the term is used in debate and generally refers to things that should be avoided or reversed, or compensated for by other means if the first two options fail.

If instead of defining the term “ecological damage” (since any definition would be based on my evaluations and someone else may have different ideas) I explain what in my view should be avoided, then I can discuss these issues without having to do so indirectly via an argument about definitions, which we are as yet unable to resolve.

So what should be avoided when using genetically modified plants as far as the ecosystem (seen as the balance of nature) is concerned?

Of course we don’t yet understand enough to be able to answer this question either with certainty and taking all the facts into account. We can get our bearings from what has so far been regarded by many people to be harmful to the ecosystem, based on experience: This includes, for example, the decline of species, which is affecting our regions as well, and not just the tropical rainforests, and nitrate contamination of soil and water, which in turn endangers many plant species and life in the Baltic Sea, since nitrates set in motion processes which cause life-threatening shortages of oxygen in the water.

In terms of species decline, it has become apparent that the cultivation of genetically modified herbicide-resistant plants causes heavier losses than cultivation using conventional herbicides. This issue is disputed in the case of maize. For herbicide-resistant sugar beet and oilseed rape varieties, losses of plants and insects have been recorded on more than 60 different fields at representative sites. Many beneficial organisms were also affected.

In the case of insect-resistant plants, the assessment of species diversity is better than for conventional varieties in some cases, depending on the animal group. Generally only a small amount of insecticide is replaced by the insect toxin inside the plant. But if the varieties are also grown is areas where no insecticide has previously been used, the overall effect is detrimental. This is precisely the case in many maize-growing areas in America and must also be expected if the plants are grown in Europe. Birds then find less to eat and many bird populations are under threat.

GMO Safety: How do you differentiate between “ecological damage” and “acceptable environmental impact”?

Gesine Schütte: I would find damage acceptable if it were easy to reverse, or if it could be compensated for elsewhere.

As far as the decline in wild plants in agricultural areas is concerned, we know from nature conservation research that in most cases, after prolonged and intensive control, the process can no longer be reversed, even where farmers go back to using gentle farming methods. Often the special plant seeds are no longer present in the soil. In Switzerland a new method is being tried instead, which involves using mixtures of commercially produced wild plant seed to provide food and a safe haven for insects and vertebrates once more. However, this does not come cheap. No other country has opted for such measures. Moreover, conservationists complain that this method completely displaces the remaining region and site-specific plants. Genotypes and some of the genetic diversity of plants are lost, while some of the animals can be saved. This is only a partial reversal. It is also a compromise only for those animals that are not dependent on the site-specific plants. There are many of these and they are the very ones that are under threat. It is of course particularly critical if organisms beneficial to agriculture are affected, since without them even more pesticides are needed.

Therefore in my example I come to the conclusion that unacceptable damage is emerging and that we must come up with something before it’s too late, with or without genetic engineering.

The cost of reintroducing bird species can be low, if the species is still found in relatively large numbers not too far away, but can also be extremely high. In addition, important processes can be irretrievably lost as a result of the absence of birds. Birds spread important plant seeds and even small creatures that in turn generally fulfil other functions in their habitat.

GMO Safety: How can changes to ecosystems caused by GM plants be assessed? What assessment criteria would you allow? Only scientific ones, or would you also include ethical, religious and socio-economic criteria?

Gesine Schütte: I believe that scientific assessment criteria alone are not enough. It should be possible to do justice to different values, ideas and ‘lifeworlds’ that are important to different groups. After all, it’s not just about science; it’s also about value systems. Socio-economic criteria also have a role to play of course.

GMO Safety: Do GM plants have any particular requirements in terms of the embodiment and application of the precautionary principle?

Gesine Schütte: Yes, because genetic engineering can be used to modify characteristics very radically, relatively fast, and in a way which is not found in nature. Genes can be introduced into organisms which were not normally there before. Some characteristics, such as herbicide resistance, can also be found to a certain extent in classically bred varieties, but the diversity of varieties which have become herbicide-resistant through genetic engineering shows that it can be achieved more easily and more quickly in this way. Precaution is therefore particularly important. Genetic engineering can of course be used to bring about changes which are not so new or so drastic and in such cases (they should be distinguished on a case-by-case basis), a more “relaxed” approach can be taken, unless there is evidence of damage.