Determinism, Holism, and Complexity

pp 211-220

Ignoring Complex Interactions in Natural Ecosystems: The Case of Terminator Technology

  • Manuela GiovannettiAffiliated withDipartimento di Chimica e Biotecnologie Agrarie, Università di PisaCenter for Soil Microbiology, C. N. R.

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Potential risks and benefits of genetically modified organisms (GMO) released into the environment have been largely debated within the political and scientific communities. Available studies on the ecological impact of transgenic crop plants have shown that risks and benefits are difficult to assess in field experiments where environmental complexity hinder absolute certainty and clearcut, yes/no responses. Nevertheless, some authors reported “previously unsuspected hazards”, stressing the need of further experimental work, both in the field and in the laboratory, to gather as many data as possible to evaluate environmental risks of GM crops. Since existing scientific literature reports contrasting results, the general view is to avoid generalisation and to make judgements on a case-by-case basis. Here I shall discuss available data concerning “unexpected events”, with the aim of pointing out the risks associated with the cultivation of “Terminator” plants. The unpredictability of genetic events due to transformation, such as horizontal gene transfer among different organisms and harmful effects of some gene products on non-target organisms, raises serious concerns about the cultivation of Terminator seeds in agriculture. Terminator seed technology is a paradigmatic case which may help us to point out potential environmental problems and envisage possible disasters, since the nature of the genes involved poses such a threat that fundamental genetic and biological questions should be answered before any environmental release of the modified seeds. In fact, plants modified through this technology contain the genes which will cause the death of second generation seeds, thus protecting patented genes introduced in a crop against further utilisation. The awareness that scientists and technologists do not know in advance all the possible interactions between transgenes and different components of complex ecosystems should foster long-term studies aimed at evaluating the environmental impact of particularly dangerous genes, such as Terminator, which interfere so heavily with fundamental life processes.