Global climate change is in the collective conscience of scientists and even average citizens in much of the West. The effect of genetic modification on the natural environment is nevertheless a very real concern for ecosystem health, which in turn can have profound effects on humans, economics, and civilizations themselves.
Concerns have been raised over perceived environmental concerns as a result of genetically modified plants and animals. Interest groups fear that traits might spread from genetically modified food crops to other plant species. This would result in the emergence of resistance in these plants to control measures (e.g. herbicides). Transferred genes could create “super viruses” and cause an inadvertent suppression of the immune system in animals. The important process of co-evolution and the interplay between various populations in an ecosystem could be fundamentally upset by the implementation of genetic modification (Huffman 2004).Crop Diversity
Genetic diversity of crops is critical to developing resistance to new pests, diseases, and the changing environmental conditions (Greenpeace). It is the natural equivalent of the old adage concerning not having all of one's eggs in one basket. Central to natural selection, genetic diversity is vital for the success of any natural population. Diversity is essential for global food security, as well. As recently as 1970, the maize varieties in the United States possessed dangerous genetic uniformity as a result of traditional cross breeding (Uzogara 2000). As a result, the Southern corn leaf blight destroyed fifteen percent of the harvest, or $1 billion. Terminator seeds and genetic modification may have a detrimental effect on traditional farming (Uzogara 2000). Botanist Jack Harlan says that genetic diversity is all that “stand between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine" (Greenpeace).
One type of technology protection system, dubbed the Terminator system, causes GM crops to not produce fertile seeds. Farmers cannot put seeds aside every year, forcing them to buy new seed. One hand it may help prevent "genetic pollution" or crossover to wild varieties of crops. However, the possibility that this gene could be conferred to another plant would be troubling (Pickrell 2006). The Exorcist system allows the production of fertile seeds, but with the GM DNA spliced out and destroyed. This could be a development that placates worries from environmental groups (Pickrell 2006).
Patenting seeds and having a monopoly over genetically altered plants may violate "the sanctity of life." What were once commodity products (available to all) are now proprietary products (only available from a few sellers). The "terminator gene" technology may soon disintegrate traditional farming practices (Uzogara 2000).
Unintentional Gene transfer to Wild Plants
The risks of genetic modified food crops are great. The prospect that genes that we add to these new modified crops could end up on a wild relative is dangerous. Salt tolerant rice could confer its resistance to a weed that "overwhelms estuarine ecosystems," for example (Aldhous 2008). Genetically modified food crops with herbicide and insect resistance could cross pollinate and result in hard-to-eradicate super weeds (Uzogara 2000). On a smaller scale, even a small increase in herbicides would lead to increased cost. This unintentional gene transfer is hard to predict and can have consequences that are not yet known (Uzogara 2000). The invasive super weeds would run rampant on the environment and take its toll on crop yields. The crops themselves could become super weeds, growing in unintended areas. The effect of the BT toxin on beneficial insects if it entered the natural ecosystem through gene transfer with wild varieties is also a significant concern (Uzogara 2000).
Plants engineered to contain virus particles to enhance resistance could facilitate in the creation of new viruses. Plants engineered to express drugs or pesticides could interact with organisms not intended as targets ( Uzogara 2000).
New Technology Could Relieve Environmental Concerns
Nitrogen is a major concern of environmental lobby groups, because nitrogen fertilizer is required for much of today's bountiful harvests. Nitrous oxide, though only released in small proportions, is a potent greenhouse gas. Eric Ray has been working, on behalf of the Serra Club, to alert many environmental organizations that plant biotechnology is indeed Eco-friendly. Crops can be genetically modified to require less fertilizer and as a result lessening the release of nitrous oxide into the environment. Nitrate pollution, which taints drinking supplies and pollutes waters near fields, would also be vastly decreased (Pickrell 2006).
The BT protein, an insecticide, is toxic to destructive insects and can be produced by many of the newly engineered plants. The protein eliminates the need for toxic chemical pesticides. The BT protein is nontoxic and degrades in the stomach acid (Uzogara 2000). The environment is less strained by the incorporation of the BT protein. However, nontarget insects by be killed, like the monarch butterfly or the targeted insects may develop resistance to toxins (Uzogara 2000).
Some plants have been modified to remove toxic waste from the environment. Some plants can now be used to clean up the effects of industry, agricultural, and petroleum production by ingesting poisons or converting them into inert compounds.
Aldhous, Peter. "Could new GM crops please the greens?" 5 Jan. 2008. New Scientist. 17 April 2010 <http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19726372.900-could-new-gm-crops-please-the-greens.html>
Pickrell, John. "Instant Expert: GM Organisms." 4 Sep. 2006. New Scientist. 17 April 2010. <http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9921-instant-expert-gm-organisms.html?page=2>
"Sustainable Agriculture and Genetic Engineering." 2009. Greenpeace. 17 April 2010. < http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/campaigns/genetic-engineering>
Uzogara, SG. "The impact of genetic modification of human foods in the 21st century." 2000. Biotechnology Advances. 18 (3): 179-206.