11.6: Invasive Species and GMOs
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An exotic species is a species that occurs beyond its native range, most often because humans have moved it, whether intentionally or not. Most exotic species do not establish viable populations in the new areas to which they have been moved because the new environments may not meet their needs, because native species may outcompete them or otherwise displace them, or because there may not be a sufficient number of individuals to become established. However, a small number of exotic species go on to become invasive species—exotic species that rapidly spread and increase in abundance at the expense of native species and ecosystems. While there is no definitive list of qualities that predict which exotic species can become invasive, many invasive species have the following in common: (1) they begin to reproduce at an early age; (2) they can reproduce rapidly; (3) they lack sufficient predators in their introduced range; (4) they disperse easily; (5) and they are generalist species, able to survive in a variety of ecosystems.
Spread of invasive species
As stated above, invasive species spread and invade new areas because human activities move them there. Some of the most prominent means by which human activities facilitate the spread of invasive species include:
- Agriculture: Large industries exist to grow agricultural plants for crop production, ornamental plants for gardens, grasses for pastures, and livestock for food. Many of these organisms later escape from cultivation and captivity and go on to invade and harm local ecosystems. Other species spread when industry workers accidentally harvest the seeds of weedy plants along with commercial seeds, and then sow those seeds in new localities, while microbes, parasitic organisms, and insects may be transported with plant leaves and roots, in potting soil, or even attached to transported animals.
- Accidental transport: Many invasive species spread to new areas because people transported them unintentionally. Domestic rats (Rattus spp.) and mice (Mus spp.) are classic examples: they have spread around the world as stowaways aboard ships. A great number of invasive plants that currently occur in South Africa’s Cape Floristic Province arrived by accident by clinging onto the luggage and hiking gear of tourists (Anderson et al., 2015).
- Biological control: Environmental and agricultural organizations sometimes use biological control to manage the spread of, and harm caused by, invasive species. While this approach can be very effective, in rare cases the biocontrol agent can become invasive and harm native species, rather than its intended target. For example, domestic cats that were introduced to Marion Island off Africa’s south coast feasted on native seabirds—in some cases, even causing seabird extirpations—instead of the rats and mice they were meant to control (Bloomer and Bester, 1992). For this reason, very careful research is necessary to test the appropriateness of a biocontrol agent before being released.
- Deliberate introductions: Soon after their arrival, colonists released hundreds of European birds and mammals into countries like South Africa and Kenya to make the African countryside feel more familiar. Other species, especially fish (e.g. trout, bass, and carp), were released to provide food and recreational opportunities. Many of these species have subsequently become so successful that they harm native species.
- Captive escapees: Many invasive species were originally kept as pets or ornamental plants but have escaped from captivity to establish feral populations that harm local wildlife. Some of the most problematic aquatic invasive species are common pets that people dumped in streams, lakes, or storm drains because they could not care for them anymore. Finding these escapees before they establish should thus be a priority.
Impact of invasive species
Invasive species have many negative consequences for native biodiversity: they displace native species through competition, alter the structure and composition of natural communities, and sometimes also hybridize with native species. These impacts may also translate to financial losses, as invasive species compromise ecosystem services (Figure 11.6.1), damage infrastructure, and spread infectious diseases. Natural communities are at particular risk in cases where invasive species change ecosystem structure and functioning so much that native species can no longer survive.
Genetically modified organisms
A topic of conflict among conservation biologists is the increased popularity of genetically modified organisms (GMO). A GMO is an organism whose genetic material has been altered to provide useful or improved products and services. To do this, scientists typically use genome editing technologies to transfer genes from a “source” organism into the DNA of the target organism. For example, scientists can transfer a bacterial gene that produces an insect toxin into a crop, such as maize, to obtain a GMO that can resist insect herbivory. Farmers using this GMO maize would then be able to increase production and reduce pesticide use (Gewin, 2003). While GMOs are usually associated with the development of pest-resistant and drought-resistant crops, uses are highly varied. For example, in Senegal, GMO technologies are used to produce tilapia that are better adapted to local ecosystems (Eknath et al., 2007). GMO technologies are being used to develop new and cheaper medicines (Concha et al., 2017), and to combat important diseases: trials in Burkina Faso shows that fungi genetically engineered to produce spider toxins caused a 99% collapse in malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito populations within 45 days (Lovett et al., 2019). GMOs can even be used for conservation purposes, like developing new methods to combat invasive species (Esvelt et al., 2014), creating more effective bioenergy sources (Beer et al., 2009), and making vulnerable species more resistant to climate change (Piaggio et al., 2017). Some scientists even hope to combat plastic pollution by creating a genetically modified bacterium able to consume plastic waste (Austin et al., 2018).
The use of GMOs is not a new phenomenon. Selective breeding, hybridization, and other forms of artificial selection—techniques that have been used for much of human history—all result in different forms of genetically modified crops and animal species. This history of genetic modification is common to nearly all crop species. For example, cabbage, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and kale were all developed from a single species of wild mustard plant (Figure 11.6.2). Wild nightshade was the source of tomatoes, eggplant, tobacco, and potatoes, the latter developed by humans 7,000 – 10,000 years ago in South America. However, technological advances in genetic engineering have enabled scientists to transfer genes from and between different taxa that have not previously been used in selective breeding programs (i.e. viruses, bacteria, insects, fungi, and shellfish). GMO technologies that transfer genetic material between wholly disparate taxa has led to concern about the unknown and unintended consequences of such “crossovers”. Some people are also concerned that GMOs that escape from captivity or cultivation (e.g. Gilbert, 2010) could hybridize with closely-related wild species, endangering native wildlife while resulting in new, aggressive weeds and virulent diseases. Additionally, the use of GMO crops could potentially harm non-crop species (e.g. insects, birds, and soil organisms) that live in, on, or near the GMO crops. Concerns have also been raised about the potential effects to people eating GMO foods, leading some governments to regulate GMO research and commercial applications differently than traditional agriculture. However, after decades of research, it appears that GMO food is safe to eat (Blancke, 2015).
Clearly, GMOs offer a wide range of opportunities which could directly and indirectly benefit biodiversity conservation. However, the benefits of GMOs must be examined and weighed against the potential risks on a case by case basis. It is probably wise to proceed cautiously, to study GMOs thoroughly, and to monitor their impacts on ecosystems and human health in the areas where they are used. These investigations could involve workshops where experts come together to perform environmental impact assessments (EIA). The potential but unknown impacts of GMOs can also be mitigated by limiting the ability of these organisms to spread or reproduce (Muir and Howard, 2004).
Examples of Genetically Modified Crops
Many genetically modified crops have been approved in the U.S. and produce our foods. The first genetically modified organism approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1994 was Flavr Savr™ tomatoes, which have a longer shelf life (delayed rotting) because a gene responsible for breaking down cells in inhibited. Flavr Savr tomatoes are genetically modified (because their DNA has been altered) but not trasgenic (because they do not contain genes from another species). The Flavr Savr tomato did not successfully stay in the market because of problems maintaining and shipping the crop. Golden rice produces β-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A (figure 11.6.3; β-carotene is also in high concentrations in carrots, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe, giving them their orange color.) Roundup Ready® corn, cotton, and soybeans are resistant to this common herbicide, making it easier to uniformly spray it in a field to kill the weeds without harming the crops (figure 11.6.4).
Figure 11.6.3: Golden rice has an orange-yellow color because it contains up to 35 μg β-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) per gram of rice, which could prevent millions of cases of blindness worldwide. Image by International Rice Research Institute (CC-BY).
Figure 11.6.4: Roundup is a common herbicide. Roundup Ready® plants are genetically modified to resist roundup, meaning the herbicide does not kill them. This allows farmers to uniformly spray Roundup, killing weeds without harming the crops. Image by Mike Mozart (CC-BY).
Crops have also been engineered to produce insecticides. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a bacterium that produces protein crystals that are toxic to many insect species that feed on plants. Insects that have eaten Bt toxin stop feeding on the plants within a few hours. After the toxin is activated in the intestines of the insects, death occurs within a couple of days. The gene to produce Bt toxin has been added to many crops including corn (figure 11.6.5), potatoes, and cotton, providing plants with defense against insects.
Figure 11.6.5: Genetic engineering to produce Bt corn. The gene from Bacillus thuringiensis that produces Bt toxin is removed and inserted into the corn plant. The Bt corn now produces the insecticide (Bt toxin) and can defend itself against pests. Image by FDA (public domain).
Genetically modified foods are widespread in the United States. For example, 94% of soy crops were genetically modified for herbicide resistance in 2020. Likewise, 8% of cotton and 10% of corn crops were modified for herbicide resistance in addition to the 83% of cotton and 79% of corn crops that were genetically modified in multiple ways.
Genetically modified animals have recently entered the market as well. AquaAdvantage® salmon are modified to grow more rapidly and were approved in November of 2015. However, as of March 2021, they have still not been sold due to legal challenges. In 2020, the FDA approved GalSafe™ pigs for medicine and food production. These pigs lack a molecule on the outside of their cells that cause allergies in some people.
Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Crops
Intellectual property rights are one of the important factors in the current debate on genetically modified crops. Genetically modified crops can be patented by agribusinesses, which can lead to them controlling and potentially exploiting agricultural markets. Some accuse companies, such as Monsanto, of allegedly controlling seed production and pricing, much to the detriment of farmers (figure 11.6.6).
Figure 11.6.6: Protesters in Washington D.C. oppose genetically modified organisms and Monsanto specifically. Image cropped from Sarah Stierch (CC-BY).
Genetically modified crops present several environmental concerns. Monoculture farming already reduces biodiversity, and cultivating genetically modified crops, for which individual plants are quite similar genetically, exacerbates this. The use of Roundup Ready® crops naturally encourages widespread herbicide use, which could unintentionally kill nearby native plants. This practice would also increase herbicide residues on produce. While Bt crops are beneficial in the sense that they do not require external insecticide application, but Bt toxin is spread in their pollen. An early study found that Bt corn pollen may be harmful to monarch caterpillars (figure 11.6.7), but only at concentrations that are seldom reached in nature. Follow-up studies found that most of Bt corn grown did not harm monarchs; however, the one strain of Bt corn did was consequently removed from the market.
Figure 11.6.7: An early study suggested that pollen containing Bt toxin can harm beneficial and native insects, like this monarch caterpillar. However, without Bt crops, farmers are more likely to spray insecticides, circulating more harmful chemicals than pollen from Bt crops does. Image by Judy Gallagher (CC-BY).
Through interbreeding, or hybridization, genetically modified crops might share their transgenes with wild relatives. This could affect the genetics of those wild relatives and have unforeseen consequences on their populations and could even have implications for the larger ecosystem. For example, if a gene engineered to confer herbicide resistance were to pass from a genetically modified crop to a wild relative, it might transform the wild species into a super weed – a species that could not be controlled by herbicide. Its rampant growth could then displace other wild species and the wildlife that depends on it, thus inflecting ecological harm.
Not only could escaped genes alter weedy species, but they could also enter populations of native species. This could make some native species better competitors than they were previously, disrupting ecosystem dynamics. (They could potentially outcompete other native species with which they would otherwise coexist.)
While there is evidence of genetic transfer between genetically modified crops and wild relatives, there is not yet evidence of ecological harm from that transfer. Clearly, continued monitoring, especially for newly-developed crops, is warranted.
The escape of genetically modified animals has potential to disrupt ecosystems as well. For example, if AquaAdvantage salmon were to escape into natural ecosystem, as farmed fish often do, they could outcompete native salmon, including endangered species. Their genetic modification, which facilitates rapid growth, could result in a competitive advantage.
Are Genetically Modified Crops the Solution We Need?
Significant resources, both financial and intellectual, have been allocated to answering the question: are genetically modified crops safe for human consumption? After many hundreds of scientific studies, the answer is yes. But a significant question still remains: are they necessary? Certainly, such as in instances like Hawaii’s papaya, which were threatened with eradication due to an aggressive disease, genetic engineering was a quick and effective solution that would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to solve using traditional breeding practices.
However, in many cases, the early promises of genetically engineered crops – that they would improve nutritional quality of foods, confer disease resistance, and provide unparalleled advances in crop yields – have largely failed to come to fruition. NASEM’s GE Crop Report states that while genetically modified crops have resulted in the reduction of agricultural loss from pests, reduced pesticide use, and reduced rates of injury from insecticides for farm workers, they have not increased the rate at which crop yields are advancing when compared to non-GE crops. Additionally, while there are some notable exceptions like golden rice or virus-resistant papayas, very few genetically engineered crops have been produced to increase nutritional capacity or to prevent plant disease that can devastate a farmer’s income and reduce food security. The vast majority of genetically modified crops are developed for only two purposes: to introduce herbicide resistance or pest resistance. Genetically modified crops are concentrated in developed countries, and their availability in developing countries, where they are perhaps most needed, is limited (figure 11.6.8).
Figure 11.6.8: Global area of genetically modified crops in millions of hectares 1996–2015. Overall, the hectares of genetically modified crops has increased, and in 2011, developing countries surpassed industrial countries. By 2015, out of the 28 countries that grew biotech crops, 20 were developing, and only eight were developed countries. Latin American, African, and Asian farmers together grew 97.1 million hectares (54%) of the global 179.7 million biotech hectares, whereas industrial countries only planted 83 million hectares or 46%. Image and caption (modified) from Taheri, F., Azadi, H., & D’Haese, M. (2017). A World without Hunger: Organic or GM Crops? Sustainability, 9(4), 580. doi:10.3390/su9040580. (CC-BY)