Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs), are crops that have had an alteration in their genome. This is done when genes contained in the DNA, each of which determines the production of a specific protein, is inserted or removed from the crops (Kleter and Kok, 2010). In most cases, GMCs have genes inserted rather than have genes removed; hence, they are referred to as transgenes. It is clear that GMCs have a wide range of benefits to the ecological system as a whole.
Two examples of such advantages include the higher yield of crops due to an insertion of genes resistance to diseases and pest, as well as medical benefits such as treating patients with diabetes by using an insertion with insulin (Tenbult et al. , 2008). Regardless of these given benefits, GMCs remain controversial. This controversy is a result of a growing uneasiness concerning the potential negative effects, which could result from exposure to GMCs. Such drawbacks include the health risks of allergies that a person can develop from inserted genes when fed with GMCs.
In addition, the spread of transgenes into the wild affects the natural equilibrium balance, which in turn becomes problematic. As a result of the spread of transgenes, natural crops can be contaminated by this new hybrid crop. Measures taken to try and control the spread of transgenes include the use of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and environmental risk assessment procedures; however, these methods are not sufficient enough to mediate the unforeseeable negative effects that GMCs have on the environment.
The transfer of transgene by insect and/or wind can occur over a large range, which results in the transmission of transgenes to non-transgenic crops. This lies with the fact that these transgenes are dominant in the environment and are able to convert the normal crops into GMCs. Consequently, these GMCs become part of a specific environment, without the knowledge of their presence. Take for instance the experiment done on the effect of GMCs on surrounding crops (Watkinson et al. , 2000). Watkinson and colleagues studied the effect of a genetically modified herbicide tolerant crop (GMHTC), on a seed-producing weed.
When a seed from the GMC traveled to a non-GMC (the weed), the interaction between transgenes of GMCs and genes of non-GMC, resulted in the death of the seed producing weed. Overall, genes within the polluted crop were not compatible with the transgene, and resulted in crop demise. Later, the research team examined the indirect effect of GMHTCs on the bird population, whose main food source was the seed produced by these specific weeds. As a result of the reduction of weed density due to GMHTCs, the bird population also declined.
This research study exemplifies how the spread of such GMCs can affect a wide range of organisms within the ecosystem. This indirect effect on the bird population, could demonstrate the effects GMCs could have on the human population. A reduction of food sources or the development of allergic reactions, are only some of the known effects that these GMCs can have on the ecosystem. Waltkinson’s research demonstrates that the spread of GMCs has the potential to result in both long-term and short-term harmful changes for the ecosystem.
We should be concerned with GMCs, because these transgenes have the potential to cause destruction to the environment and ecosystem as a whole. Their spread interferes with the natural environment, such that harm can be a result if GMCs continue to spread. As transgenes spread and become dominant, they can threaten the survival of the non-transgenic crops, when their non-transgenetic genes are compatible with transgenic genes (Muir et al. , 2004). This happens due to the competition of resources between the GMCs and normal crops.
The advantage GMCs have over natural crops, prevents natural crops from competing in the natural environment, because GMCs stand a better chance in natural selection. In other words, GMCs can change the biotic factors of a given environment. Although this may kill certain crops, it also allows certain crops to adopt the same genetic modifications as these GMCs. When GMCs transfer their genetic material, non-transgenic crops adapt and become resistant to factors, such as disease, that would have otherwise balanced the crop population.
In turn, the crop population develops the ability to resist the disease and cause overpopulation. This is especially problematic given a small supply of resources for this growing resistant population. Due to the effects that have been accounted for through the spread of GMCs, efforts on how to prevent and detect the presence of GMCs have taken place. Specific measures have been put into account to detect the presence of transgenes in crops contaminated by GMCs. Batrinou and his research team illustrate the method DNA-based PCR can detect the presence of a transgene when present in a crop (Batrinou et al. 2008); however, the fact that PCR can detect GMCs does not mean that we can prevent the spread of such crops into the wild. Although recognition can occur before the spread, detection is not of great help in stopping the spread of GMC genes. This is not to say that identification of transgenes, at this stage, does not have a purpose. It will not be easy to stop GMCs contamination; hence, measures to prevent escalation of the spread of GMCs can be introduced. Detection of transgenes can be done after the damaging spread of transgenes to other crops has occurred.
This is useful when GMCs have spread into the wild and polluted the natural crops. This option, although helpful in detection of transgenes, does not tackle the problem of stopping the spread in the first place. Knowledge of such contamination can be used to make the general public aware, so individuals who have allergies to that specific inserted gene can take precautions. As the saying goes ‘prevention is better than cure’, the efforts put to reduce the negative effects of GMCs spread are promising.
The approach used to prevent the spread of transgenes is the environment risk assessment procedure, that is carried out before GMCs are exposed to the environment. There are various ways in which such assessments are carried out (Muir et al. , 2004; Koivisto et al. , 2002; Kleter and Kok, 2010); however, they all have three things in common, which must be taken into consideration. Before the environment risk assessment procedure is used, scientist must consider: examination of GMCs as hazards with the ability to cause harm after their exposure and the risk associated.
This method, itself, seems more effective in eliminating the spread of transgenes rather than the detection method. Considering a GMC as a potential hazard allows a thorough analysis of frequency and consequence of the resulting harm, hence the acceptable risks can be determined. If the assessment procedure has determined that the risk is greater than what is acceptable, the implementation of that given GMC is stopped. Therefore, it is a beneficial situation to prevent the occurrence of hazardous transgenes into the environment because, in this case, the problem has been solved, before it can harm natural crops.
If the risk caused by the spread is too low, the GMC is considered acceptable, and the GMC will be used. Conversely, the problem still lies when GMCs are classified as low risk and allowed into the environment, because there is no guarantee that the transgenes from GMCs will not spread to natural crops. They can expand as a result of natural process, such as cross-pollination where the wind blows seeds of transgenic crops from one area to another.
These transgenes might not cause visible, significant harm in short term but there is no accountability with the long-term effect. Just because we are not certain of the long-term effects associated with GMCs does not mean we can dismiss the possibility of greater harm. It is, therefore, safer to question the accuracy of this method of assessment that permits the growth of low risk GMC into the environment. Objection to the notion that GMCs could dominate the global crop population lacks sufficient evidence.
As we have seen, GMCs have the potential to wipe out or alter natural crops, destroy animal populations and cause life-long effects for humans. Despite research attempts at identifying and preventing GMC damage, further methods to evaluate and prevent GMC harm are crucial and must continue to be investigated. Current methods do not tackle the main problem of GMCs spreading, and thus further research must be done, if we continue to use GMCs. If we do not address the damage these GMCs can do, we could very well see a huge negative impact on our global ecosystem.