Ecosystems with high biodiversity are characterized by complex interactions between different species, which can help the ecosystem remain intact and healthy in the face of disturbance and environmental change.
For this reason, looking at biodiversity is a good parameter for assessing the overall health of an ecosystem. The higher the biodiversity, that is the more different kinds of creatures interacting, the more stable the ecosystem. Genetically engineered crops are created by inserting a protein from a different organism into the original crop’s genome.
In recent articles we have reviewed some of the unintended effects on human and animal health. There are also unintended effects on biodiversity, direct and indirect. Research is demonstrating that GMOs can cause unintended direct adverse effects on fundamental aspects of biological diversity including but not limited to lethal and sub-lethal effects to insects, aquatic life, soil microbes, and their food web dynamics.
This is especially worrisome because it is becoming obvious that genetically modified organisms are getting loose in the wild. There is gene flow between GMO varieties and wild relatives. It has been confirmed that transgenes (genes that have been transferred from one organism to another) of at least three plant species in which these have become established in the wild.
The first was Brassica rapa (also called rape seed) which is in the same family as turnips, cabbage, mustard, brussel sprouts and other important crops. The seeds are used for edible oil suitable for consumption by human beings and animals as well as suitable for biodiesel. Canola is a variety of rapeseed developed through genetic engineering. A study in North America found herbicide resistant transgenes in 80% of wild natural rapeseed plants. This is also happening in the United Kingdom.
The second was Bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera) which is a Eurasian grass widely used for lawns and golf courses. GMO Bentgrass was being developed to be used in commercial grass seed production; it has never been approved. It is now creeping out of trial sites as well as pollinating relatives in the wild.
In North America, genetically modified bentgrass which is believed to have escaped from commercial trial sites and has never been approved, is spreading along waterways canals and drain ditches. In trial fields where it was plowed out, scientists are continuing to uncover genetically modified bentgrass around the field. In addition the wild creeping Bentgrass is being pollinated by the field trial plants.
While the field trial operators followed recommendations to prevent such pollination by separating the field trial from wild bentgrass plants by 900 feet, pollination was found as far away as 21 km. Gossypium hirsutum (cotton) also is escaping from agricultural environments into wild or natural areas. More than 95 per cent of cultivated cotton worldwide was domesticated from G. hirsutum, which originated and was diversified in Mexico.
The first permits for planting GM cotton in Mexico were granted in 1996 over the protests of many Mexican scientists. Genetically modified cotton genes have been found in wild populations was made in Mexico by six Mexican researchers investigating the flow of genes to wild cotton populations of the species.
They found transgenes from cotton that had been modified to resist insects, herbicides or antibiotics in just under a quarter of the 270 wild cotton seeds assessed for that purpose. One of the contaminated seeds came from a wild plant located 755 kilometers away from the nearest GM cotton plantation.
Others were beyond first-generation hybrids because they carried multiple and different transgenes. According to the researchers, the GM seeds could have been dispersed by long distance lorry drivers transporting seeds for animal feed or oil extraction; by mild or strong winds; by fresh or salt water; or by birds and animals that had eaten them.
“It is urgent to stop the flow of genes between cultivated and wild plants,” Ana Wegier, lead author of the study and a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s ecology institute. The flow of genes between cultivated GM or non-GM cotton plants and their wild relatives reduces the genetic diversity. This has consequences for the environment, food safety and health, as well as legal and commercial implications.