AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SUSTAINABILITY
Heading: Development Topic: Biotechnology
Created through modern biotechnology techniques, living modified organisms (LMOs) promise enormous benefits for agriculture, medicine, and other fields. At the same time, many people are concerned about the possible risks to biological diversity and human health of introducing LMOs into the environment.
Since the early 1970s, genetic engineering - the ability to transfer genetic material in new ways and to radically alter the intricate genetic structure of individual living cells - has enabled scientists to genetically modify plants, animals, and micro-organisms. Traditional methods such as breeding selection and cross-fertilization are low-tech and slower paced. Modern methods such as genetic engineering techniques and recombinant DNA technology, on the other hand, can introduce a greater diversity of genes into organisms almost instantly. They also make it possible for the first time to transfer genes from one type of organism to another - for example, to insert genes from a bacterium into a tomato to create a transgenic plant.
Researchers are experimenting with micro-organisms, insects, fish, and animals to find ways of altering their growth characteristics or of making them produce new substances. The products of biotechnology can be used to improve the resistance of plants to pests and environmental pressures and to increase their commercial value. Other results include new medical treatments and vaccines and new industrial products.
Modern biotechnology has great potential for human well-being if developed and used with adequate safety measures for the environment and human health. This is a very new field, however, and much about the interaction of LMOs with various ecosystems is not yet known. It is therefore vital that the introduction of genetically modified organisms does not proceed faster than advances in scientific understanding.
Some of the concerns about the new technologies include unintended changes in the competitiveness, virulence, or other characteristics of the target species; the possibility of adverse impacts on non-target species and ecosystems; the potential for weediness in genetically modified crops (i.e. a plant becomes too resistant and invasive, perhaps by transferring its genes to wild relatives); and the stability of inserted genes (i.e. the possibilities that a gene will lose its effectiveness or will be re-transferred to another host).
Engineered genes may offer vast potential improvements, but they are also more mobile than scientists had suspected. Viral genes used to modify crops can be transferred to infecting viruses (Greene and Allison, 1994). Genes inserted in crop plants by genetic engineering can be transferred rapidly to wild weedy relatives, even over considerable distances, and thus escape from control (Mikkelsen et al., 1996; Timmons et al., 1995). Similar concerns have been expressed about genetically altered animals such as 'super salmon' (MacKenzie, D., 1996). There have been concerns for potential environmental or health disasters caused by genetically modified organisms (Independent Panel on Sustainable Development, 1996). Extra care will thus be required in planning genetic alterations and releasing the resulting organisms. In response to these concerns, government-designated experts adopted the UNEP International Technical Guidelines for Safety in Biotechnology in December 1995.
Biotechnology can also have economic and social impacts. The use of genetically modified temperate crops such as rapeseed in developed countries to replace tropical crop products such as coconut and palm oils could eventually threaten the exports and thus the economies of poor developing countries (Kleiner, 1995).
While many countries with modern biotechnology industries have relevant domestic legislation, many developing countries lack the technical, financial, and institutional means to address biosafety. They need greater capacity for assessing and managing risks, establishing adequate information systems, and developing expert human resources in biotechnology. A protocol on biosafety under the Convention on Biological Diversity addresses these issues (www.biodiv.org) (UNEP, 1999).
REFERENCES AND SOURCES
Timmons, Aileen, Eileen O'Brien, Yvonne Charters and Mike Wilkinson. 1995. (Scottish Crop Research Institute) Quoted in Coghlan, Andy. "Far-flung pollen raises spectre of superweed." New Scientist, 11 November 1995, p. 10.