Research Council (NRC) to organize a workshop of developers of GEOs, ecologists, land managers, and others to discuss GEOs in the context of ecological research. Rather than assessing the potential environmental risk of any particular transgenic organism, the USGS was interested in identifying different research approaches that could be useful in anticipating, understanding, and detecting effects of GEOs on wildlife and natural habitats. This report is a summary of the discussions that emerged from that workshop, held in Irvine, California, on November 6 and 7, 2007.
Almost all currently produced GE (also known as genetically modified, or GM) crops contain genes for herbicide tolerance, Bt production, or both. But beyond these crops, research and testing are under way in a large variety of plants (including trees), microorganisms, and animals (including insects and aquatic species) to introduce a much broader range of traits with potential benefits for farmers, consumers, and other users of GE products (see Box 1-1). These traits include resistance to disease, drought tolerance, greater nutritional content, production of pharmaceutical products, and altered starch structure for industrial uses such as in biofuels. Transgenic plants and animals engineered to produce vaccines and human proteins already have been created and some are being field-tested. The potential to genetically engineer insect and aquatic species for the purpose of developing effective biocontrol agents is another subject under active investigation—for example, a GEO that can help control a non-native aquatic species—yet at much earlier stages of development.
One of the primary reasons that most GEOs have not been commercialized or even extensively field-tested is the continued uncertainty about their risks to the environment, both managed and wild. In a number of reports published by the National Research Council (NRC 2000, 2001, 2002a, 2002b, 2004), potential environmental impacts identified included the following:
Direct and indirect effects on plant and animal species coexisting with transgenic plants and animals.
Interbreeding or hybridization with and horizontal gene transfer to species related to the GEO, creating novel organisms in the ecosystem that are potential pests, competitors, or that depress the fitness of wild relatives.
Spread of biologically active agents, such as viruses, to non-transgenic species, and the emergence of recombinant viruses.
Spread of novel proteins produced by the GEO to the air, water, or soil in which plants and animals live.