Home

ENVIRONMENTAL HARM

One way of thinking generally about the environmental harm that genetically engineered plants might do is to consider that they might become weeds. Here, weeds means all plants in places where humans do not want them. The term covers everything from Johnson grass choking crops in fields to kudzu blanketing trees to melaleuca trees invading the Everglades. In each case, the plants are growing unaided by humans in places where they are having unwanted effects. In agriculture, weeds can severely inhibit crop yield. In unmanaged environments, like the Everglades, invading trees can displace natural flora and upset whole ecosystems.

Some weeds result from the accidental introduction of alien plants, but many were the result of purposeful introductions for agricultural and horticultural purposes. Some of the plants intentionally introduced into the United States that have become serious weeds are Johnson grass, multiflora rose, and kudzu. A new combination of traits produced as a result of genetic engineering might enable crops to thrive unaided in the environment in circumstances where they would then be considered new or worse weeds. One example would be a rice plant engineered to be salt-tolerant that escaped cultivation and invaded nearby marine estuaries.


GENE TRANSFER TO WILD OR WEEDY RELATIVES
Novel genes placed in crops will not necessarily stay in agricultural fields. If relatives of the altered crops are growing near the field, the new gene can easily move via pollen into those plants. The new traits might confer on wild or weedy relatives of crop plants the ability to thrive in unwanted places, making them weeds as defined above. For example, a gene changing the oil composition of a crop might move into nearby weedy relatives in which the new oil composition would enable the seeds to survive the winter. Overwintering might allow the plant to become a weed or might intensify weedy properties it already possesses.


CHANGE IN HERBICIDE USE PATTERNS
Crops genetically engineered to be resistant to chemical herbicides are tightly linked to the use of particular chemical pesticides. Adoption of these crops could therefore lead to changes in the mix of chemical herbicides used across the country. To the extent that chemical herbicides differ in their environmental toxicity, these changing patterns could result in greater levels of environmental harm overall. In addition, widespread use of herbicide-tolerant crops could lead to the rapid evolution of resistance to herbicides in weeds, either as a result of increased exposure to the herbicide or as a result of the transfer of the herbicide trait to weedy relatives of crops. Again, since herbicides differ in their environmental harm, loss of some herbicides may be detrimental to the environment overall.


SQUANDERING OF VALUABLE PEST SUSCEPTIBILITY GENES
Many insects contain genes that render them susceptible to pesticides. Often these susceptibility genes predominate in natural populations of insects. These genes are a valuable natural resource because they allow pesticides to remain as effective pest-control tools. The more benign the pesticide, the more valuable the genes that make pests susceptible to it.

Certain genetically engineered crops threaten the continued susceptibility of pests to one of nature's most valuable pesticides: the Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt toxin. These "Bt crops" are genetically engineered to contain a gene for the Bt toxin. Because the crops produce the toxin in most plant tissues throughout the life cycle of the plant, pests are constantly exposed to it. This continuous exposure selects for the rare resistance genes in the pest population and in time will render the Bt pesticide useless, unless specific measures are instituted to avoid the development of such resistance.


POISONED WILDLIFE
Addition of foreign genes to plants could also have serious consequences for wildlife in a number of circumstances. For example, engineering crop plants, such as tobacco or rice, to produce plastics or pharmaceuticals could endanger mice or deer who consume crop debris left in the fields after harvesting. Fish that have been engineered to contain metal-sequestering proteins (such fish have been suggested as living pollution clean-up devices) could be harmful if consumed by other fish or raccoons.


CREATION OF NEW OR WORSE VIRUSES
One of the most common applications of genetic engineering is the production of virus-tolerant crops. Such crops are produced by engineering components of viruses into the plant genomes. For reasons not well understood, plants producing viral components on their own are resistant to subsequent infection by those viruses. Such plants, however, pose other risks of creating new or worse viruses through two mechanisms: recombination and transcapsidation.

Recombination can occur between the plant-produced viral genes and closely related genes of incoming viruses. Such recombination may produce viruses that can infect a wider range of hosts or that may be more virulent than the parent viruses.

Transcapsidation involves the encapsulation of the genetic material of one virus by the plant-produced viral proteins. Such hybrid viruses could transfer viral genetic material to a new host plant that it could not otherwise infect. Except in rare circumstances, this would be a one-time-only effect, because the viral genetic material carries no genes for the foreign proteins within which it was encapsulated and would not be able to produce a second generation of hybrid viruses.


UNKNOWN HARMS
As with human health risks, it is unlikely that all potential harms to the environment have been identified. Each of the potential harms above is an answer to the question, "Well, what might go wrong?" The answer to that question depends on how well scientists understand the organism and the environment into which it is released. At this point, biology and ecology are too poorly understood to be certain that question has been answered comprehensively.