A perspective on ecological consequences of GM crops

This post contributed by ESA member Sean Hoban, a post-doc in conservation genetics at the University of Ferrara, Italy. In the opening pages of his book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan quotes agrarian writer Wendell Berry in reminding us that, “Eating is an ecological act.”  Simultaneously, eating is also a political act.  Indeed, in the past year, headlines about local food and the US Farm Bill have reminded us of the interplay between agriculture, government policy, and the environment.  Food choices are complex, requiring diverse knowledge to understand the consequences of our choices, especially regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), one of this years’ most hotly debated topics.  GMOs are crop varieties that have been engineered to carry genes for desirable traits, taken either from other species or synthesized in the laboratory.  Such crops now make up more than 90% of sugar beet and cotton grown in the USA, and 88% of corn. Most of the debate about GMOs (understandably) centers on human health, but GMOs also influence other aspects of social-ecological systems.  This post looks at a few basic ecological concerns, which have not received much mainstream attention.  The Ecological Society of America (ESA) published a position statement in 2005 that explains these and other issues in detail.  Wikipedia has a thorough article on many benefits and costs of GMOs. While GM crops have been around since the mid-1990s, a lot is happening in 2012.  In November, Californians will vote about GMO labeling, while recently a similar “Right to Know” bill was abandoned in Vermont (after legal threats from agribusiness titan Monsanto).  Russia recently banned imports of GM corn based on a recent controversial French study that claimed to have demonstrated a link to cancer.  And next year, the US Supreme Court will consider a lawsuit between Monsanto and an Indiana farmer who unknowingly planted patented GM seeds. One big ecological concern is the potential for GM traits to “escape” into other species by hybridization.  A common GM trait is resistance to particular types of herbicides, such as glyphosate, so strong herbicides can be used to control weeds without affecting crops .  Other GM plants produce their own insecticides, such as Bt toxin, to prevent pest damage and require less pesticide application.  Future GM crops might be created to have higher nutritional value (e.g. to produce particular vitamins) or tolerate environmental stress.  The worst-case scenario sometimes portrayed is that such genes could escape into plants outside cultivation, creating super weeds (weeds resistant to herbicides) or otherwise altering a plant’s ecosystem role or relative fitness (as shown in squash) due to toxicity, growth habits, or nutrient value, with cascading ecosystem effects...

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From the Community: cricket sex, vertical farms and H1N1 resistance

Scientists document cricket predation and reproduction, protestors cancel Oscar-winning anti-dolphin-hunting documentary in two Tokyo theaters, study describes the process of developing resistance to H1N1 treatments and researchers debate the possibility of achieving sustainable agriculture worldwide. Here is ecology in the news from the first week in June.

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