GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS (GMOs) are living organisms with genetic material modified by humans in a laboratory.
GMOs are extremely controversial in the realm of food due to concerning findings and the general lack of long-term studies on how consumption of GMO-based food products impact people.
But how could they potentially impact wildlife? It’s a question no one seems to want to address but that deserves some attention.
As GMOs continue to make their way into the wild, could it impact genetic diversity in plants in a way that causes long-term damage?
An article written by Heather Landy for Harvard University said a major concern of genetically modified organisms is that they will cause reduced genetic diversity of plants and animals in the environment.
A terrifying example of how a lack of genetic diversity contributed to a major agricultural problem is Ireland’s potato famine of the 1800s.
“At this time, Ireland was heavily dependent on potatoes for nutrition, and the type of potatoes they cultivated were not grown from seeds. Instead, they planted sections from a parent potato. In this way, all potatoes were clones of their parents and contained identical genetic information. The lack of genetic variability in these potato crops proved detrimental when an invasive pathogen, P. infestans, wiped out the entire population.”
The author noted a great concern about wild and GMO plants mating. It has already been proved through wild grass species crossing with a grass genetically-engineered to be resistant to a common herbicide used on golf courses.
Imagine a potato-famine-like situation where grasses, seed-bearing flowers and other plants die because of GMO tinkering. The impact on wildlife could be devastating.
An Israeli company is working heavily on a plan to create trees with super growth capabilities. According to an article in The Guardian, this company has spent 11 years trialing thousands of GMO eucalyptus and poplar trees on 100-hectare plots in Israel, China and outside São Paulo in Brazil, and is now at the last stages of the Brazilian regulatory process for commercial planting.
“Thanks to a gene taken from the common, fast-growing Arabidopsis weed, the company has found a way to alter the structure of plant cell walls to stimulate the natural growth process. The company says its modified eucalyptus trees can grow 16 feet a year, with 20 to 30 percent more mass than a normal eucalyptus.”
Imagine forests of the future totally comprising of GMO-based trees. The push for profits could lead to destruction of many trees favorable to wildlife. We have already seen this when timber companies annually destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of mast-bearing hardwoods, then plant profitable pines.
Apologists from GMO companies are already saying this will save forests by creating quicker growing, larger trees on smaller tracts of land. Their argument is this will require less overall deforestation.
If anything, this will allow for wiping out more natural forest to create GMO cash crops. Other areas of forest that were once used for timber harvest, and in some cases sustainable harvest, will be turned into tree barren ranchland for cattle. Still others will become settlements for burgeoning human populations in the third world and high-end real estate in the West.
Altered plants are one thing but “transgenic” wildlife is a whole ‘nother level of threat.
According to the University of Calgary a “transgenic animal” refers to an animal in which there has been a deliberate modification of the genome—the material responsible for inherited characteristics—in contrast to spontaneous mutation.
“Foreign DNA is introduced into the animal, using recombinant DNA technology, and then must be transmitted through the germ line so that every cell, including germ cells, of the animal contain the same modified genetic material.”
Transgenic mice are already being used in laboratories around the world.
Transgenic cows are found in many locations. Since 2000, scientists at a company called AgResearch have been successfully producing transgenic cows that make modified milk or produce therapeutic proteins to treat human diseases.
An increasingly common reason for animal endangerment is hybridization. The Scottish wild cat is doing the same with domestic cats in their remaining range and the red wolf of America was declared extinct in the wild in 1980 owing to hybridization with coyotes.
How long will it take transgenic wildlife to enter the field?
What if mixing DNA saved from hides of extinct Irish elk could produce massive modern elk bodies and antlers?
What if mixing DNA from plants into white-tailed deer made the ones grown on farms more disease resistant? What if that DNA got into the wild population?
With deer being a key prey item for coyotes, bobcats, cougars, wolves and even eagles, what would be the result on the entire ecosystem?
I predict we will see the push for transgenics to control populations of non-indigenous feral hogs in America as well as in Australia.
Hogs cause millions of dollars in damage to crops and real estate. Poison has already been used in Australia and is being pushed in America.
What if a strain of hog could be produced and introduced into the wild population that would produce generations of offspring that died at birth or sows that would have stillborns?
What would the implications be as those genetics enter the ecosystem and are consumed by other species?
I don’t know whether any of these things will happen, and I hope they don’t. However someone needs to be asking these questions.
Technology can be a good thing for wildlife. However, if the hunting and fishing community does not stand guard, technology could radically change the wildlife we love in ways that we might not yet be able to imagine.
Email Chester Moore at [email protected]