Genetically Engineered Plants and Animals: The Ecology of Unknown Consequences

Imagine the primordial forest, a canopy dense with foliage, the floor strewn in dappled light. From the cool boreal woodlands to the tropical forests, trees have sustained complex ecosystems evolving over the millennia of time. Some trees live for decades and even centuries, laying down shade and forest duff, sustaining mosses, insects, birds and mammals. Their seed and pollen spread with the wind sometimes traveling hundreds of miles. What then could possibly go wrong with a forest of genetically engineered trees, a pasture of GE grass or genetically engineered animals? The answer is we don’t really know… but probably plenty.

The consequences will become clear if the imminent deregulation of genetically engineered (GE) Eucalyptus is approved. The USDA recently announced the extension of a comment period for their deregulation which closes on July 5th, 2017.  There have been no long-term environmental risk assessments on how these trees will spread their pollen and seeds perhaps contaminating native forests for years to come. You can branch off and learn more about GE trees online.

Meanwhile, fields of grass aren’t turning out to be much greener. It’s been a decade since Scotts Miracle-Gro was conducting GE experiments on creeping bentgrass when the GE pollen promptly jumped the rivers and dales. Those experiments contaminated wild grasses throughout Oregon and Idaho and to date have not been reigned in.

Now the USDA is allowing the same company to market GE Kentucky Bluegrass, with no oversight or regulation. It will be used primarily on golf courses because it’s engineered to withstand heavy applications of the well-known herbicide glyphosate. It’s only a matter of time before the GE plantings impact the many sod growers in the Willamette Valley. Farewell to endangered native grass species and the butterflies that depend on them. There is no way to stop the wind from blowing the pollen of this pernicious grass across pasture, meadow and greensward.

There seems to be big fish to fry in Indiana. Last week biotech company, AquaBounty Technologies, announced that it is acquiring a fish farming facility in Albany, Indiana for $14 million in cash. In it, they will raise GE salmon to grow bigger and faster while making sustainability claims on the availability of local seafood. One of the biggest questions environmentalists and scientists share is what happens if these fish escape into the wild? Will they drive out native counterparts forever altering ecosystems? While contamination is unlikely in Indiana, the precedent for this edible GE fish could mark the first run towards unknown aquatic consequences.

It gets even seedier. Some herald the new gene-editing technique CRISPR as the future of seed breeding technology while others are expressing caution. A new study published in Nature Methods raises concerns that this gene-editing technology can introduce hundreds of unintended mutations in the genome itself. CRISPR technology allows for very specific manipulation of DNA, but until this study, researchers hadn’t looked for off-target effects or other mutations. While scientists work to improve the precision of this gene cutting and splicing there are, once again, no regulations or government oversight on how the technology is being applied.

This week the public comment period closed on proposed changes to the oversight of genetically engineered (GE) crops and animals. Many of the comments called on USDA and FDA to substantially strengthen their proposed rules to better protect farmers, the general public and the environment from harmful GE plants and risky GE animals. The proposal itself is weak because it institutionalizes regulation based on the process, not product. The traits that are produced are the most important, not the method used to introduce it.

Our natural world will change rapidly as we tinker and toy with the genetics of our environment. A day doesn’t go by when there isn’t a story or announcement on GE products and policies. Like it or not, unique new GE products are entering the market and our environment at astounding rates.

In principle, I am not opposed to new groundbreaking technologies. What I am concerned about is the unequivocal way our government protects and promotes private industry and new technologies at the expense of unknown ramifications. Government oversight, testing and regulatory monitoring should be employed immediately in all new gene editing techniques and GE plants and animals that can breed with native ecosystems.

Will we see the forest for the trees and adopt the precautionary principle before we forever alter the very fiber of our world? The answer may be blowing in the wind.

2 thoughts on “Genetically Engineered Plants and Animals: The Ecology of Unknown Consequences

  1. That last sentence is absolute Gold. A great read, that has inspired me to check out the GM scene here in the UK.
    I have little against GM in principle, especially when used to people people in poverty, but as an industry, it should be under the most intense of regulations. Meddling with organisms like this is dangerous and risky, like you say the precautionary principle should be standard on anything GM related.

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