Environmental hazards

Last updated May 27, 2011

Illustrative quote:

"Our current knowledge does not provide us with the means to predict the ecological long-term effects of releasing organisms into the environment. So it is beyond the competence of the scientific system to answer such a question..."

René von Schomberg.
Contracted by STOA (Scientific and Technological Options Assessment) of the European Parliament. Report on the release of Genetically Modified Organisms to the European Parliament, 2 Jan. 1998 (82 Kb, requires Adobe Acrobat Reader that can be downoaded here
see also Comment on the EU policy concerning release of GE organisms)

GE= Genetically Engineered.
Text difficulty:  [EL] = elemenatry level.   [ML] = medium level.   [AL] = advanced level.

The number of possibilities how the release of Genetically Engineered organisms into the environment may upset the ecology is very large. The possible complications are extremely difficult to evaluate. With few exceptions, governments all over the world are allowing the release of GE organisms into nature without requiring careful scientific investigation of the environmental consequences.

This is nothing less than blind experimentation with the environment with unknown and unpredictable consequences, especially as the released genes cannot be recalled.

General overviews

Spread of genes without mating (so called horizontal transfer.)


The problem of Antibiotic marker genes


Hazards from inserted virus genes

  • The Virus Hazard   [EL] An introduction
  • The Cauliflower Mosaic Virus promoter - a hazard in GE plants [ML]
  • New! "Cauliflower Mosaic Viral Promoter - A recipe for Disaster?" a scientific article by Mae-Wan Ho, Angela Ryan, Joe Cummins
    a) Press release about the article in non-technical language.  [EL]
    b) The article [AL]. This article summarizes recent research showing that the CaMV promoter gene has an unstable region a "recombination hotspot" that greatly increases the risk for generation of new viruses. It is maintained that the promoter may also increase the risk for cancer.
         Rebuttals by the authors of critisism of the article:
  • New! "Risks of Virus Resistant Transgenic Crops". [AL]. Mae-Wan Ho, Angela Ryan, Joe Cummins. March 2000. Updates the most recent knowledge. "The available evidence clearly indicates that there are serious potential hazards associated with the use of the CaMV promoter. All GM crops and products containing the CaMV promoter should therefore be withdrawn both from commercial use and from field trials unless and until they can be shown to be safe."
  • For a comprehensive overview of the CaMV problems, see "Risks Associated with the Use of the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus Promoter in Trangenic Crops".  Published at the website of NLP Wessex.
  • New! "New corn viruses of unclear origin" Two new corn viruses have been discovered in the US. Their origin has not been elucidated. It is discussed whether they may have been generated in GE crops.
  • "..... At a meeting in Washington DC last week [Aug 1997], the US Department of Agriculture outlined possible restrictions aimed at reducing the risk of creating harmful new plant viruses .....These include a possible limit on the length of genetic sequences introduced into crop plants and the banning of genes that make functional proteins. The department is also worried about particularly high-risk sequences, such as those that trigger the process of viral replication." [The CaMV DNA in GE crops is such a high risk sequence. It is still widely used in GE crops covering a large part of American fields. /The editor.]

    [The suggested restrictions have not since been implemented to the best of our knowledge. /The editor]

    Source: New Scientist magazine, 16 August 1997: "Field of genes: They have the biotechnology, but it may be running out of control, and the US is starting to worry"

    ".......The area of concern specific to viral transgenes [in GM crops] is the potential risks on any interactions between the viral or virus-related sequences being expressed from the transgene and another virus superinfecting that plant. Three main scenarios are usually considered: synergism, recombination and heteroencapsidation..... It is generally considered that recombination plays an important role in the evolution of RNA viruses (see refs. 20—23). Evidence is now forthcoming of recombination between superinfecting viral RNA and RNA expressed from a transgene (24) through the aberrant homologous recombination mechanism. ...... It is difficult to devise detailed protocols for the detection of recombinants produced in the field..... There are several examples of heteroencapsidation in transgenic plants, both between viruses of the same group (27,28), and between unrelated viruses (29)."

    Source: 'Detection of Risks Associated with Coat Protein Transgenics', Dale et al, Methods in Molecular Biology: Plant Virology Protocols: from Virus Isolation to Transgenic Resistance. New Jersey, Humana Press Inc. 81, 574-555, (1998)

Agricultural aspects

    General issues

  • "Sustainability and Ag Biotech". A review of the analysis of agricultural economist Charles Benbrook resulting in the conclusion that GE agriculture brings US agriculture even further away from sustainability than it has been so far.
  • New! Organic Farming Will Feed the World.  Astonishingly, it's more productive than high-tech agriculture
  • How the Terminator terminates.  [ML]  An explanation for the non-scientist of a remarkable patent for killing second generation seeds of crop plants. Includes a discussion of potential hazards.
  • Biotechnology and Pest Control: Quick Fix vs. Sustainable Control [EL] Jane Rissler.
  • New! Vitamin A enhanced GE crops: potential problems. There are potential problems with such vitamin enhancement.

    Potential effects on soil fertility

    DNA can survive for thousands of years in the soil according to Professor Alan Cooper, head of the department of Zoology at Oxford University, UK. In April 2003, he published a report about this reserach in the journal "Science".

    "The ability of DNA to persist in soils for so long was completely underestimated . . . and illustrates how little we know," and "a great deal more research is needed before we could predict the effect of releasing GE plants...It raises serious issues about the release of altered genes into the environment, such as how long are they going to last, and where will they be able to disperse to."

    Source: "Fears raised over DNA survival in soil". Dominion Post (Wellington); April 25, 2003, quoted by GMWatch..

  • Genetically Engineered Crops - a Threat to Soil Fertility? (condensate for laymen) [EL]. A hypothesis, that if found true, would mean that in the worst case irreparable damage to soil ecology might occur due to altered soil microorganisms. A popularized summary of the scientific article with the same name:
  • New! "Genetically Engineered Crops - A Threat to Soil Fertility?" (full article)  [AL]

    "we find that it is unjustifiable to continue the culture of any transgenic crops until it has been established experimentally beyond reasonable doubt that the proposed mechanism may not result in disturbances of soil ecology. "

  • New! Soil Effects of Transgenic Agriculture: Biological Processes and Ecological  Consequences. Soil scientists Neil Macgregor and Max Turner are "...concerned about the unevaluated effects of these technologies and the possible long-term residual effects on essential soil biological processes"
  • "Genetically Engineered Crops and Soil Fertility". [EL]  An explanation for laymen how GE crops might damage soil fertility.
  • GE crops with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) genes suspected to harm soil ecology The Bt toxin is present in every part of a GE plant with Bt genes. It will enter the soil at the decomposition of plant parts not harvested. The toxin was found to persist in the soil and could do harm to important soil micro-organisms. If so, fertility problems may ensue in a significant part of American soils.
  • Damaged soil ecology from GE-related herbicide. ISIS Press Release 30/11/03. Roundup (Glyphosate) is the herbicide used along with crops that have been genetically engineered to tolerate it. This herbicide has been found to cause an increase of patogenic fungi in the soil.
    Scientists have revealed an increased colonization of the roots of Round-up Ready (RR) soya with the harmful fungus Fusarium. At the same time, large scale cropping with herbicide-tolerant cultivars was found to increase soil-borne plant pathogens; Brazilian soils likewise showed increased microbial activity for several seasons when glyphosate was used. There is clear evidence that repeated glyphosate applications over several seasons increases soil-borne pathogens.

    Ecological issues

  • New potentially dangerous microorganism found on GM plants. Professor Don Huber at Purdue university has discovered a new microorganism that may be harmful to humans, animals as well as plants. In animals it is associted with decreased fertility and spontaneous abortions. Huber found a connection between the microorganism and GM-plansts where it is found in high concentration in GM animal feed while it is absent or in very low concentrations in non-GM feed.
    Based on the scientific evidence currently accumulating, I do not believe it is in the best interests of the agricultural producer or consuming public for regulatory agencies to approve more GMO crops, particularly Roundup Ready® alfalfa and sugar beets, until independent research can establish their productivity when predisposed to potentially severe diseases, the irrelevance of the new EM organism, their nutritional equivalency, and their safety.
  • The GM pesticide Roundup linked to several plant diseases. Professor Don Huber at Purdue university has noted a conscpicous connection tetween a number of plant diseases and the use of Roundup. The more years Roundup has been used, the more of plant diseases appear. Below wheat after 1 year of Roundup, and the same crop after 10 years:
  • Harmful plant health effects of glyphosate (Roundup). This pesticide is the most commonly used one in connection with GM-crops (that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to it).
    (Edited excerpt) Extensive research has shown that this potent tool for weed management, glyphosate, is also a strong immobilizer (chelator) of essential plant nutrients to impair nutrient uptake, translocation, and physiological efficiency at only a fraction of the labeled herbicidal rate.
    ..Glyphosate is a powerful biocide to harm beneficial soil organisms important for nutrient recycling, N-fixation, nutrient availability, and natural disease control with a resultant increase in diseases of corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops. These effects of glyphosate can have deleterious effects on plant nutrition, disease susceptibility, and nutritional quality of the crop produced.
  • Genetically Engineered Crops Damage Wildlife by Jeffrey Smith. A 90% decrease of some farmland bird species has occurredin the UK. A connection with GMO cultivation is suspected as the GM-related pesticides eliminate the plants on which the birds feed. Also other ecological disturbances are mentioned.
  • GE crops may generate new and harmful viruses  [EL] There is a risk that certain kinds of virus gene parts in GE crops may give rise to new viruses. These may be more infectious and damaging than naturally existing viruses. As such virus genes are present in every cell of practically all kinds of GE crops, their numbers are staggering. Therefore this risk cannot be neglected.
  • "Gene transfer from GE rapeseed to bacteria and fungi in guts of honey bees". Genes from GE pollen eaten by bees have been found in the bacteria of the bees. A group of scientists warns that such transfer of GE genes to bacteria may have problematic consequences. Such spread of GE genes is completely uncontrollable.
  • Superweeds - a problematic complication [ML]
  • Genetically Engineered Crops May Threaten Beneficial Insects [EL]
  • Transgenic pollen containing pesticidal GE genes found to harm Monarch butterfly larvae [EL]
  • Herbicide-Resistant Crops-Another GE Threat to Monarchs?  [EL]
  • New! GM crops harmful to beneficial insects. [EL] Pesiticidal potatoes found to harm ladybirds that contribute importantly to control insect pests.
  • New! Corn refuge spreads dominant Bt mutants. Research indicates that the "GE free refuge policy" to keep down the development of insects resistant to Br toxin is likely to be ineffective.
  • New! Pollen flow from engineered crops-problems for growers. [EL] Spread of pollen from GE Canola fields cause problems to growers in neighboring fields
  • New! Spray drift from Herbicides causes significant losses. The powerful herbicides used in conjunction with herbicide resistant GE crops has caused considerable losses in surrounding non-resistant crops.
  • For more on ecological problems, see http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/enivironmentalproblems.htm

    Productivity and profitability

  • Argentina GM-soya project problematic "Argentina faces big agronomic problems that it has neither the resources nor the expertise to solve. The country has adopted GM technology more rapidly and more radically than any other country in the world. It didn't take proper safeguards to manage resistance and to protect the fertility of its soils. Based on the current use of [GM] Roundup Ready, I don't think its agriculture is sustainable for more than another couple of years."

    US consultant Dr Charles Benbrook, former Executive Director of the US National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture

    Source: Nightmare of the GM weeds

  • US Department of Agriculture (USDA) finds GMO crops not very profitable. Excerpt:

    "Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative."

    For a comment, see USDA Report Exposes GM Crop Economics Myth

  • GM Crops Increase Pesticide Use. ISIS Press Release 11/12/03.

    A new report from Dr. Charles Benbrook, concludes that the 550 million acres of GM corn, soybeans and cotton planted in the US since 1996 has increased pesticide use (herbicides and insecticides) by about 50 million brittish pounds. Benbrook is a respected agricultural economist and has been the Executive Director of the US National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture.

    "For years weed scientists have warned that heavy reliance on herbicide tolerant crops would trigger ecological changes in farm fields that would incrementally erode the technology´s effectiveness. It now appears that this process began in 2001 in the United States in the case of herbicide tolerant crops," said Benbrook."

  • "Monsanto's Roundup-Ready Soy Beans Cracking Up". These widely marketed have been found to crack up in soil temperatures over 40 degrees Celcius (104 F). The stems splitted and opened up to infection. This has caused over 40% crop losses.
  • Soya study concludes that gene insertion reduces yields. This research demonstated that reduced crop yields were specifically caused by genetic engineering.
  • Glyphosate Efficacy is Slipping and Unstable Transgene. Dr. Charles M. Benbrook. "RR soybeans clearly require more herbicides than conventional soybeans, despite claims to the contrary." In addition, "There is voluminous and clear evidence that RR soybean cultivars produce 5 percent to 10 percent fewer bushels per acre in contrast to otherwise identical conventional varieties".
  • Failure of GM cotton in India. Frontline, India. Issue 11, May-June, 2003.
    "Reports are pouring in from different parts of the country of a "failed" or "unsatisfactory" harvest of the first commercial transgenic Bt cotton crop. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture has asked the Centre to re-evaluate the economic viability of Bt cotton. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests has rejected the use of MECH 915 Bt cotton seeds in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan."
  • Genetically Engineered Roundup Ready Soy crops less profitable than conventionally bred varietes  [EL] A scientific report based on over 8000 university-based field studies finds lower yields and increased use of herbicide compared to conventionally bred soy.
  • Study Questions Widespread Use of Bt Corn. A study published in the May 2001 Journal, BioScience, questions the widespread use of Bt corn, saying it has not reduced pesticide use or significantly increased yields.
  • Disappointing Biotech Crops  [EL]
  • Recipe for Disaster.  [EL] Joel Bleifuss. More on disappointing results with Biotech crops.
  • For more on yield problems, see http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/yieldproblems.htm

    For more information about agricultural problems, we recommend:

    "Will GM crops deliver benefits to farmers?" A website with links to numerous articles about agricultural problems with GE crops.

"Genetically Engineered Food - Safety Problems"
Published by PSRAST

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