The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


Public Research for Biosafety Regulation of Transgenic Crops

David E. Ervin
Portland State University and Winrock International

Sandra S. Batie
Michigan State University

Rick Welsh
Clarkson University

Transgenic crops have spread rapidly to cover approximately one quarter of U.S. cropland since just 1995. Only a small core of science exists to understand the short- and long-term environmental effects of the crops. Some laboratory and field evidence is available on the potential environmental benefits and risks of widely used products, such as herbicide-tolerant crops and plants engineered with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). However, key assessments that account for the full range of geographic, weather, pest and management conditions are lacking (Ervin, et al; Wolfenbarger and Phifer). Only 4 percent of federal agricultural biotechnology research funds are available for biosafety purposes. As more transgenic crops are developed and released, the biosafety knowledge deficit will grow.

The environmental effects of a transgenic crop depend on the characteristics of the organism, the environmental system in which the crop is placed, the skill with which it is managed, and the biosafety regulations that shape its development and deployment. Potential environmental benefits include the use of fewer, less-toxic or less-persistent pesticides; increased crop yields (which may reduce land conversion to production); increased ex situ crop genetic diversity; decreased water use; and reduced soil tillage. Potential risks include uncontrolled flows of genes to wild relatives; the development of herbicide, pest and virus resistance in wild relatives; reduced in situ crop genetic diversity; and adverse effects on species that are not pests, such as beneficial insects.

Early estimates suggest that transgenic crops will confer environmental benefits in some areas and/or in some years -- for example, some varieties appear to induce less use of toxic pesticides and slightly increased yields on average. The early experimental findings also show that using transgenic crops will, in certain circumstances, increase some environmental risks, such as gene flow and harm to species that are not pests. Most studies of transgenic crops’ environmental effects have been confined to laboratories or small fields.

The lack of detailed environmental impact data required for commercial approval and release of transgenic crops hinders risk and benefit assessments. The fundamental problem is a lack of research and monitoring on the environmental effects to inform the biosafety regulation process. Changes in intellectual property rights that have propelled biotechnology development have encouraged private and public research systems to understandably focus on the private commercial aspects of transgenic crops. Public goods, including environmental benefits and risks that suffer missing market incentives, will be neglected under such institutions.

Two reforms involving public research are discussed to enhance the environment benefits of transgenic crops and avoid serious ecological risks.


Ervin, D., S. Batie, R.Welsh, C. Carpentier, J. Fern, N. Richman, and M. Schulz. Transgenic Crops: An Environmental Assessment. Policy Studies Report, Wallace Center for Agricultural and Environmental Policy, Winrock International, November 2000.

Wolfenbarger, L. and P. Phifer. "The Ecological Risks and Benefits of Genetically Engineered Plants." Science 290 (Dec. 15, 2000): 288-293.

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