Background Information: Researchers Probe Evironmental Impact of GMOs
Monday, August 28, 2000
To foster a meaningful public debate about GMOs and their implications for Australian agriculture and ecosystems, there is a pressing need for scientific data on risks and benefits presented in a balanced and factual manner.
Ecological risk analysis, which is the science of understanding risk as it applies to changes to our environment, is the appropriate discipline with which to address questions of sustainability and impacts of GMOs.
Ecological risk analysis is a new and developing field. Ecological risks of GMOs have been carefully studied and regulated to date in Australia but there is a need for broader scale implications of GMOs to be considered than has
been possible using the available data, which, of necessity, have come from fairly small scale studies. As the scale of GMO plantings increases, the kinds of risks they pose also change and we need to understand what these risks are
likely to be.
In order to gather more data to understand the ecological risks of widespread planting of GMOs, large scale trials must be conducted. CSIRO has the capacity to undertake these trials and can also make a great contribution to the overall research effort by building capacity in ecological risk assessment and strengthening links between groups working in ecological modelling, climate matching and studies of resilience of different ecosystems.
The potential benefits of GMOs for sustainable agriculture will depend largely on the rate at which they are adopted by farmers and a farmers` willingness and ability to comply with the necessary changed practices. The indirect effects of GMOs for farm management and for the natural environment are difficult to predict.
There are three parts to CSIRO`s new research project:
1. CSIRO will build an ecological risk assessment group that networks ecological modellers, risk analysts, ecologist working in systems ecology and on the ecology of pests and weeds, and climate matching specialists. They will help develop risk assessment tools for GMOs that considers effects at a wider, landscape scale, and at longer time-frames. They will also initiate a number of case studies to follow through each stage of introduction of a GMO and the possible consequences.
2. The second part of the project will look at GM agricultural plants to examine whether there are indirect (or knock-on) impacts. It will to take into account landscape (or large) scale interactions that will occur after commercial
release. Small-scale field studies, while useful, may not always predict what might happen on a large scale or over a long time-frame. The project will address both positive and negative consequences of widespread GMO adoption.
The field studies will focus on the impact of insect-resistant genetically modified (GM) cotton on beneficial insects; the potential of GM clover to invade natural environments and its impact on beneficial organisms; and the effects of GM cotton and GM canola on important processes like nutrient cycling.
3. The third part of the project will look at the theoretical risks posed by four very different GMOs that are considered to be technically feasible for release over the next three to ten years. These studies will provide a broad range of issues to aid the development of a system for pro-actively identifying and assessing risks associated with new genetic technologies. We will work closely with government bodies such as the Interim Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (IOGTR) and Environment Australia to ensure that their concerns are met.
The four study organisms for this theoretical risk study are:
Eucalypts - the genetic and ecological impacts of gene flow between exotic eucalypt plantations and native populations Rumen biota - risks to man, other organisms and the environment from livestock gut micro-organisms modified to break down less digestible feedstuffs Oysters - ecological risks associated with the development of oysters genetically modified to prevent invasion into natural ecosystems Mouse cytomegalovirus (MCMV) - ecological risks of releasing a genetically manipulated virus to induce sterility in mice to reduce the incidence of mouse plagues.
The results from this research will help Australia and other countries coming to grips with Genetically Modified Organisms and the risks, benefits and changes associated with this new technology. It will also aid in Australia`s fast-growing biotechnology industry by allowing for the wise and sustainable use of gene technology.