The cassava makes up part of the diet of nearly 600 million people worldwide. By inserting a bacterial version of the gene for starch production, scientists have come up with a super-sized cassava. Photo: David Monniaux.
Transgenic crops (GMCs: genetically modified crops), main products of agricultural biotechnology, are increasingly becoming a dominant feature of the agricultural landscapes of the USA and other countries such as China, Argentina, Mexico and Canada.
- Worldwide, the areas planted to transgenic crops jumped more than twenty-fold in the past six years, from3 million hectares in 1996 to nearly 44.2 million hectares in 2000. 10
- In the USA, Argentina and Canada, over half of the average for major crops such as soybean, corn and canola are planted in transgenic varieties.
- Herbicide resistant crops (HRCs) and insect resistant crops (Bt crops) accounted respectively for 59 and 15 percent of the total global area of all transgenic crops in 2000.
Transnational corporations (TNCs) such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Novartis, the main proponents of biotechnology, argue that carefully planned introduction of these crops should reduce or even eliminate the enormous crop losses due to weeds, insect pests, and pathogens. In fact, they argue that the use of such crops will have added beneficial effects on the environment by significantly reducing the use of agrochemicals.13 However, ecological theory predicts that as long as transgenic crops follow closely the pesticide paradigm prevalent in modern agriculture, such biotechnological products will do nothing but reinforce the pesticide treadmill in agroecosystems, thus legitimizing the concerns that many environmentalists and some scientists have expressed regarding the possible environmental risks of genetically engineered organisms. In fact, there are several widely accepted environmental drawbacks associated with the rapid deployment and widespread commercialization of such crops in large monocultures, including:3,21,25
the spread of transgenes to related weeds or conspecifics via crop-weed hybridization
reduction of the fitness of non-target organisms through the acquisition of transgenic traits via hybridization
the rapid evolution of resistance of insect pests such as Lepidoptera to Bt
accumulation of the insecticidal Bt toxin, which remains active in the soil after the crop is ploughed under and binds tightly to clays and humic acids;
disruption of natural control of insect pests through intertrophic-level effects of the Bt toxin on predators
unanticipated effects on non-target herbivorous insects (i.e., monarch butterflies) through deposition of transgenic pollen on foliage of surrounding wild vegetation14
vector-mediated horizontal gene transfer and recombination to create new pathogenic organisms
This paper will focus on the known effects of the two dominant types of GMCs: herbicide resistant crops (HRCs) and insect resistant crops (Bt).
Biotechnology, agrodiversity and farmers’ options
The spread of transgenic crops threatens crop diversity by promoting monocultures which leads to environmental simplification and genetic erosion. History has repeatedly shown that uniformity characterizing agricultural areas sown to a smaller number of varieties is a source of increased risk for farmers, as the genetically homogeneous fields may be more vulnerable to disease and pest attack.22
Several people think that HRCs and Bt crops have been a poor choice of traits to feature the technology, given predicted environmental problems and the issue of resistance evolution. In fact, there is enough evidence to suggest that both these types of crops are not really needed to address the problems they were designed to solve. On the contrary, they tend to reduce the pest management options available to farmers. There are many alternative approaches, (e.g., rotations, polycultures, cover crops, biological control, etc.) that farmers can use to effectively regulate the insect and weed populations that are being targeted by the biotechnology industry. To the extent that transgenic crops further entrench the current monocultural system, they impede farmers from using a plethora of alternative methods. 2
Ecological effects of HRCs
Just as it occurs between traditionally improved crops and wild relatives, pollen mediates gene flow between GMCs and wild relatives or conspecifics despite all possible efforts to reduce it. Little is known about the long-term persistence of crop genes in wild populations or about the impact of fitness-related crop genes on the population dynamics of weedy relatives. The main concern with transgenes that confer significant biological advantages is that they may transform wild/weed plants into new or worse weeds.
Hybridization of HRCs with populations of free living relatives will make these plants increasingly difficult to control, especially if they are already recognized as agricultural weeds and if they acquire resistance to widely used herbicides. For example:
- Transgenic resistance to glufosinate can be passed on from Brassica napus to populations of weedy Brassica napa, and persist under natural conditions. 25
- In Europe there is a major concern about the possibility of pollen transfer of herbicide tolerant genes from Brassica oilseeds to Brassica nigra and Sinapis arvensis. 8
Economic and agronomic implications
World-wide in 2000, transgenic herbicide resistant crops were planted on 74% of the 44.2 million hectares devoted to transgenic crops. 10 In North America, transgenic glufosinate resistant cultivars of canola and corn, and transgenic glyphosate resistant cultivars of soybean, corn, cotton, and canola are now commercially available. Bromoxynil resistant transgenic cotton has also been developed. The so-called Round-up ready soybeans are the most prevalent GMCs.
Transgenic herbicide resistance in crop plants simplifies chemically based weed management because it typically involves compounds that are active on a very broad spectrum of weed species. Post-emergence application timing for these materials fits well with reduced or zero-tillage production methods, which can conserve soil and reduce fuel and tillage costs.6
However, HRCs also have significant problems.
Reliance on HRCs perpetuates the weed resistance problems and species shifts that are common to conventional herbicide based approaches.
Herbicide resistance becomes more of a problem as the number of herbicide modes of action to which weeds are exposed becomes fewer and fewer, a trend that HRCs may exacerbate due to market forces.
Given industry pressures to increase herbicide sales, acreage treated with broad-spectrum herbicides will expand, exacerbating the resistance problem. For example, it has been projected that the acreage treated with glyphosate will increase to nearly 150 million acres. Although glyphosate is considered less prone to weed resistance, the increased use of the herbicide will result in weed resistance, even if more slowly, as it has been already documented with Australian populations of annual ryegrass, quackgrass, birdsfoot trefoil and Cirsium arvense.7
Perhaps the greatest problem of using HRCs to solve weed problems is that they steer efforts away from crop diversification and help to maintain cropping systems dominated by one or two annual species. Crop diversification can
- reduce the need for herbicides
- improve soil and water quality
- minimize requirements for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer
- regulate insect pest and pathogen populations
- increase crop yields and reduce yield variance.
Thus, to the extent that transgenic HRCs inhibit the adoption of diversified cropping systems that include rotational crops, cover crops and green manure, they hinder the development of sustainable agriculture.
Ecological risks of Bt crops
Based on the fact that more than 500 species of pests have already evolved resistance to conventional insecticides, pests can also evolve resistance to Bt toxins present in transgenic crops. No one questions if Bt resistance will develop, the question is now how fast it will develop. Susceptibility to Bt toxins can therefore be viewed as a natural resource that could be quickly depleted by inappropriate use of Bt crops.15 However, cautiously restricted use of these crops should substantially delay the evolution of resistance. But is cautious use of Bt crops possible given commercial pressures that have resulted in a rapid rollout of Bt crops reaching 8.2 million hectares worldwide in 2000?
The refuge strategy of setting aside 20-30% of land to non-Bt crops to delay resistance is very difficult to implement regionally. Data from the Midwest shows that Bt corn saves on some insecticide use and yields are 2.4 Bu/acre higher than conventional corn but only under high European corn borer infestations (USDA 1999). On the other hand organic corn growers use no insecticides and obtain yields (4.8-9 t/ha) similar or slightly higher than conventional farmers (5.0-7.l t/ha).16
BT crops and beneficial insects
Bacillus thuringiensis proteins are becoming ubiquitous, highly bioactive substances in agroecosystems. Most non-target herbivores colonizing Bt crops in the field ingest plant tissue containing Bt protein which they can pass on to their natural enemies in a more or less processed form. Polyphagous natural enemies (polyphagous: subsisting on many kinds of foods) that move between crop cultures are found to frequently encounter Bt-containing non-target herbivorous prey in more than one crop. This is a major ecological concern given previous studies that documented that Cry1 Ab adversely affected the predaceous lacewing Chrysoperla carnea reared on Bt corn-fed prey larvae.9
These findings are problematic for small farmers in developing countries who rely on insect pest control, which involves a complexity of predators in their mixed cropping systems.1 Research shows that natural enemies can be affected directly through inter-trophic level effects of the toxin present in Bt crops. This raises serious concerns about the potential disruption of natural pest control, as polyphagous predators will encounter Bt-containing, non-target prey that move within and between crop cultivars throughout the crop season. Disrupted biocontrol mechanisms will likely result in increased crop losses due to pests or to the increased use of pesticides by farmers with consequent health and environmental hazards.
Effects on the soil ecosystem
The possibilities for soil biota to be exposed to transgenic products are very high. The little research conducted in this area has already demonstrated:4, 18, 23
- There is long term persistence of insecticidal products (Bt and proteinase inhibitors) in soil.
- The insecticidal toxin produced by Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. kurskatki remain active in the soil, where it binds rapidly and tightly to clays and humic acids.
- The bound toxin retains its insecticidal properties and is protected against microbial degradation by being bound to soil particles, persisting in various soils for at least 234 days.
- The presence of the toxin in exudates from Bt corn and verified that it was active in an insecticidal bioassay using larvae of the tobacco hornworm.
Given the persistence and the possible presence of exudates, there is potential for prolonged exposure of the microbial and invertebrate community to such toxins, and therefore studies should evaluate the effects of transgenic plants on both microbial and invertebrate communities and the ecological processes they mediate.3
If transgenic crops substantially alter soil biota and affect processes such as soil organic matter decomposition and mineralization, this would be of serious concern to organic farmers and most poor farmers in the developing world. These farmers cannot purchase or don’t want to use expensive chemical fertilizers. They rely instead on local residues, organic matter and especially soil organisms for soil fertility (e.g., key invertebrate, fungal or bacterial species) which can be affected by the soil bound toxin. Soil fertility could be dramatically reduced if crop leachates inhibit the activity of the soil biota and slow down natural rates of decomposition and nutrient release.
General Conclusions and Recommendations
The available independently generated scientific information suggests that
- the massive use of transgenic crops poses substantial potential risks from an ecological point of view *the ecological effects are not limited to pest resistance and creation of new weeds or virus strains11
- transgenic crops can produce environmental toxins that move through the food chain and also may end up in the soil and water affecting invertebrates and probably ecological processes such as nutrient cycling3
- no one can really predict the long-term impacts that will result from such massive deployment of such crops.
Not enough research has been done to evaluate the environmental and health risks of transgenic crops, an unfortunate trend. Most scientists feel that such knowledge is crucial to have before biotechnological innovations are implemented. There is a clear need to further assess the severity, magnitude and scope of risks associated with the massive field deployment of transgenic crops. Much of the evaluation of risks must move beyond comparing GMC fields and conventionally managed systems to include alternative cropping systems featuring crop diversity and low-external input approaches. This will allow real risk/benefit analysis of transgenic crops in relation to known and effective alternatives.
Moreover, the large-scale landscape homogenization with transgenic crops will exacerbate the ecological problems already associated with monoculture agriculture. Unquestioned expansion of this technology into developing countries may not be wise or desirable. There is strength in the agricultural diversity of many of these countries, and it should not be inhibited or reduced by extensive monoculture, especially when consequences of doing so results in serious social and environmental problems.2
The repeated use of transgenic crops in an area may result in cumulative effects such as those resulting from the buildup of toxins in soils. For this reason, risk assessment studies not only have to be of an ecological nature in order to capture effects on ecosystem processes, but also of sufficient duration so that probable accumulative effects can be detected. The application of multiple diagnostic methods will provide the most sensitive and comprehensive assessment of the potential ecological impact of transgenic crops.
Although biotechnology is an important tool, at this point alternative solutions exist to address the problems that current GMCs, developed mostly by profit motives, are designed to solve. The dramatic positive effects of rotations, multiple cropping, and biological control on crop health, environmental quality and agricultural productivity have been confirmed repeatedly by scientific research. Biotechnology should be considered as one more tool that can be used, provided the ecological risks are investigated and deemed acceptable, in conjunction with a host of other approaches to move agriculture towards sustainability.17
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