Spokane County Extension

Agriculture and Natural Resources

GMO Technology – a gentle genie or a tyrant?

By Diana Roberts, WSU Extension

“The genie is out of the bottle” is a phrase I hear frequently about the advent of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in agriculture. I sense the speakers are implying that the technology is with us, that there’s no going back, and there’s little to be done about it. In that context it would be more appropriate to quote the story of Pandora’s box. This Greek myth tells that curious Pandora opened a forbidden box that could never again be shut, with many unforeseen and irreversible consequences. 

Conversely, the genies in the Asian tales frequently did retreat into their bottles. It was the attitude and wisdom of the humans in the stories that determined whether the genie worked as a useful servant or became a dominating tyrant. I do believe that this is the appropriate analogy for GMO technology. However, the technology by itself is neither good nor evil (like guns or television), but we, the people, have tremendous responsibility to use it wisely

February 2001 forum on GMOs

Last February, Washington State University (Cooperative Extension and the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources) and the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network hosted a forum in Spokane on GMO technology. The discussion covered many topics, but centered on the risks associated with GMOs.

Chris Laney, a farmer from Sprague and past president of WAWG, opened with a discussion of how he saw the technology, specifically herbicide tolerance, having tremendous potential for helping growers manage weeds as they transition to direct seeding systems in order to conserve soil. Laney also outlined the risks associated with herbicide tolerant crops:

·        pollen drift to non-GMO and organic fields

·        development of herbicide resistant weeds through outcrossing from GMO crops to related weeds

·        development of herbicide resistant weeds due to inadequate herbicide rotation.

Dr. Jim Cook, Endowed Wheat Research Chair at WSU, emphasized the risks of not going forward with GMO technology. He said that Washington State led the Green Revolution but is not participating in the “gene revolution”.

Cook explained that a transgenic potato that is virus resistant produces the protein coat of the virus - the presence of which prevents further infection. An unmodified potato that is diseased will contain the whole virus. Both potatoes look and taste identical. Yet transgenic potatoes are not grown in Washington because McDonalds won’t buy them.

Cook also outlined the stand that the US National Academy of Science has taken – that the risks of growing any plant are the same regardless of the method by which its genes were modified. Dr. Ignacio Chapela, UC Berkeley, described this philosophy as the principle of substantial equivalence – that if two products look the same and behave the same then they should be treated and regulated the same.

Chapela recommended using the precautionary principle, which places the burden of proving safety fully on the originating company. A product should not be claimed as safe because its potential risks have not been examined. The Dutch government and the Royal Society of Canada support this perspective. He maintained that American farmers who grow transgenic crops, instead of the companies that patent them, are currently bearing the risk and cost of potential threats that these crops pose to the environment.

Phil Bereano, Professor of Technical Communication at the University of Washington, continued this theme with the text, “no evidence of risk is not the same as evidence of no risk”.  He emphasized that recent evidence indicates that risk assessment is not being done, and adequate risk analysis should be conducted before releasing a transgenic organism.

Bereano related the paradox that companies are claiming that transgenic organisms are the same as non-GMOs based on substantial equivalence, but then they are patenting them as being different!

He also raised the concern that patented material is not available for open testing and peer review. Safety is a social notion, not a scientific one, and individuals have varying levels of acceptable risk for their lives.

Scientific assessment of GMO risks and benefits

So, if risk of the unexpected is the greatest barrier to adoption of GMO technology, what is being done to understand and minimize the hazards? An article in the December 2000 issue of Science (Vol 290 pp 2088-2093 by L.L. Wolfenbarger and P.R. Phifer) discussed “The ecological risks and benefits of genetically engineered plants.” The paper is a review of recent scientific literature in academic, peer-reviewed journals. It covers environmental risk assessment, but does not include food safety issues.

The authors discussed a number of potential risks associated with introduction of transgenic plants

·        Risk of invasiveness. The literature indicated that only a few of the 50,000 introduced species in the US become invasive, but those “weedy” species cost $137 billion a year for direct management or indirect effects. Controlled experiments showed that some transgenic crops could hybridize with related wild species, but there were no reports in scientific journals of this occurring in natural populations (though the media has reported numerous events).

·        Risk of direct effects on nontarget beneficial and native organisms. The popular press has addressed the controversy over transgenic (Bt) corn that contains the genes to produce the insecticidal toxin of Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria. Laboratory experiments showed that pollen from Bt corn was detrimental to larvae of Monarch butterflies, a nontarget species. Wolfenbarger and Phifer said that the laboratory studies did not necessarily apply to natural populations because they did not report the rate at which the larvae encountered the toxic pollen, which was necessary for assessing risk. Other studies revealed that transgenic crops might affect soil fertility, reduce the diversity of soil microbial populations, and affect the rate of plant decomposition. However, the long-term effects were not clear.

·        Risk of indirect effects on beneficial and native organisms. Wolfenbarger and Phifer said reports were mixed as to whether populations of natural predators of crop pests were reduced in fields of Bt crops. Similarly, laboratory studies showed differing results on the longevity and accumulation of Bt toxin in predatory insects that ate insects feeding on Bt crops. These studies also lacked data on field exposure levels, so the results could not be extrapolated to natural systems

There was evidence, however, that soil pH and microbial levels affect the breakdown rate of Bt toxin in the soil, and it was most persistent in soils with high clay content and low pH.

·        Risk of new viral diseases. Reports indicated that it is potentially possible for new viruses to develop from plants that carry the genes for virus coat proteins, which make them virus-resistant. However, so far there is no actual evidence of this happening in real life.

·        Risk of variability and unexpected results. Current scientific literature showed that the complexity of ecosystems makes it challenging to identify and anticipate risks associated with GMO technology. Variability amongst cultivars and their interaction with different environments – soil type, temperature, moisture, etc – limit extrapolation of results from small field experiments. Unexpected hazards are more likely to occur if GMO crops are introduced widely across different habitats and interact with a variety of other species, some of which may be more sensitive to impact.

Wolfenbarger and Phifer also evaluated papers reporting on potential benefits of GMO crops.

·        Reduced environmental impacts from pesticides and increased yield. For comparisons of potential risks and benefits of GMO crops to be valid, they must be considered relative to other farming practices, such as conventional or organic systems. Claims that less chemical is used with GMO crops must include number of treatments, application rate (total amount of chemical), acreage treated, and environmental conditions or infestation rate. Not all studies included these factors, so their claims of decreased pesticide use with GMO crops were tenuous. The potential for increased yield with GMO crops is not assured, but is probably greatest in developing countries.

·        Soil conservation. Farmers successfully using direct seeding systems should reduce soil erosion and water loss, and improve soil quality. Herbicide tolerant crops could be beneficial in such systems as growers could manage weeds with post emergent herbicides, such as glyphosate, instead of using tillage and pre-emergent, soil incorporated herbicides.

·        Soil phytoremediation. Some GMO plants and microorganisms may remediate polluted soil and water by removing heavy metals or changing pollutants to more benign forms.

The authors drew the following conclusions.

·        The greatest benefit, and also the greatest risk, of GMO technology is its ability to break barriers between species.

·        Crucial experiments to assess environmental benefits and risks of GMO crops are still needed for adequate analysis.

·        Neither the risks nor the benefits of GMO crops are assured or widespread, and both may vary with different situations and environments.

·        Our ability to predict the impact of any introduced species (including GMOs) is inexact and the data collected has limitations, which decreases considerably the accuracy of long-term risk assessment.

·        Hazards associated with GMOs are likely to increase with the number and variety of GMOs released.

·        Careful documentation of GMO benefits, in relation to other practices, is important in weighing benefits against potential irreversible changes in the environment.

·        Technology that sustains the effectiveness of transgenes or prevents their movement into wild populations will minimize risk and prolong the benefits.


There are no silver bullets, and GMO technology will not substitute for quality farm management practices. The paper in Science emphasized that risk analysis of GMO effects on the environment is incomplete and it would be virtually impossible to anticipate all possible consequences of their introduction.

There is risk in every aspect of life, yet we want to avoid a “Pandora’s box” situation.

How then will we manage this GMO genie so that it’s a useful tool, not an uncontrollable menace? I believe that developing a holistic perspective of the benefits and the risks associated with the technology will be crucial for making decisions about whether to release individual transgenes and each crop into which they are inserted. This will be a huge challenge and incredibly expensive. The decision-making approach should be specific to each individual release. Even so there are likely to be unforeseen consequences. I have not discussed food safety issues in this article, but GMOs generate many potential benefits, issues, and concerns in that arena also.

At the Spokane GMO forum, Ignacio Chapela stressed that farmers, who are a tiny proportion of the US population, are making decisions about GMOs that will impact the nation and the whole world. This is a position of tremendous power and responsibility. Individual producers, and communities of producers, must be informed in your decision-making. I believe it is important that you read and listen to perspectives from both sides of the debate. The GMO issue generates great emotion, and I have not heard a single person who is totally unbiased about it, regardless of how they present their opinions. It is also important to listen to your intuition. Everyone tends to take risks in life (e.g. sports, travel, investments, relationships) based on their senses, and your intuitive process is worth considering, along with logical data, in all decisions.

The “disconnect” that has existed between the USA and many other countries over GMOs may boil down to their perspectives of the principle of substantial equivalence and the precautionary principle. Nations and individuals that have refused to use GMO products have said essentially that they do not want to bear the risk of any detrimental consequences to themselves or to their environment. They are using the precautionary principle.

I believe that any farmers considering production with GMOs should hear the concerns in this light. Are you willing to bear the risk on behalf of the originating companies? There are farmers who have not even grown GMO crops who are learning about this risk (see that last website listed below). On the other hand, do you believe that GMOs will provide you the competitive edge that you need in a global market so that you need to take the risk of adopting the technology?

Further reading

The following websites provide a variety of aspects of GMO technology.

http://www.colostate.edu/programs/lifesciences/TransgenicCrops/   Includes an outline (using animated graphics) of the process for developing GMO crops.

http://biotech-info.net/index.html   A collection of papers and reports representing both sides of the GMO debate.

http://www.house.gov/science/smithreport041300.pdf   A report to Congress summarizing the regulation and potential benefits of GMOs.

http://www.edmonds-institute.org/   A protocol for examining health and environmental risk of GMOs.

http://www.percyschmeiser.com/   Outlines the tribulations of a Canadian farmer who lost a lawsuit against a company that claimed he was growing GMO varieties illegally when pollen drift contaminated his fields.

For more information contact WSU Extension, (509) 477-2048.


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