Is Biotechnology messing up Biodiversity?
According to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), “Biotechnology” is defined as:
“Any technological application that uses biological system, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.”
Thus areas such as genetic engineering, cell/tissue culture and breeding through artificial selection all fall under the category of biotechnology.
Biodiversity on the other hand is generally defined as the variety of organisms living on Earth, which comprises of genetic diversity, species diversity as well as ecosystem diversity. Biodiversity provides us with the variety of plant and animal sources where we use as a basis for food, shelter and clothing. However, through rapid innovations of technology driven by so-called modernization, human beings have interfered and seriously harmed biodiversity.
Man in today’s age are arrogantly exploring and rendering the genetic material of living creatures for the their personal benefits in the cause of “improving” life and has named this effort “genetic engineering”. For the past decades, scientists favouring transgenic organisms have made an effort in voicing out the benefits of genetic engineering. Similar to this, opposing parties have also had a huge say regarding the matter. In the light of biodiversity, several issues have been raised out. Among many, one of the biggest question asked is:
“Is biotechnology opening a new window of greater biodiversity or is it actually reducing it?”
To tackle this question, we look upon an area that has been hugely affected by genetic engineering, the area of agriculture.
Before looking into the negative effects of genetic engineered crops, known as transgenic crops to scientists, the initial reasons and the intended benefits should be looked upon first. The 3 main reasons behind transgenic crop development are tackling biotic influences, abiotic influences and nutrition enhancement.
Biotic factors are factors that are related to other living organisms. In the area of crops, biotic influences are the influences of pests and weeds. Transgenic crops are thus developed to be resistant to herbicides and pesticides. Abiotic factors conversely relates to non-living components of the environment. In relation to crops, weather conditions, such as droughts, salinity levels and frosts are their major concern. Nutrition enhancement is another topic all together. The initial cause is the noble idea to help poor countries by giving them nutritionally enhanced food to combat health problems. This effort is surprisingly not as easy as it seems and has raised major concerns regarding future unknown outcomes.
By only looking at one side of the coin, transgenic crops may seem to be the perfect solution to today’s everyday and global issues. No more poisonous pesticides on vegetables, summer fruits all year long, and solving the Africa’s starving population. Despite all this, the issue of transgenic organisms is a double-edged sword.
Transgenic crops have their bad effects. Among them is that it disturbs the ecological balance and natural interaction of organisms. As some parties naively claim that transgenic organisms add to the world’s diversity by producing new species, the real fact is that it actually threatens biodiversity on a wider level. For example, transgenic crops can be made to be resistant to herbicides. This application would mean that farmers could use herbicides on their fields without damaging their product. This is great for a farmer’s productivity, but bad for biodiversity. Wiping out the weeds would have an impact on the populations of insects who feed on the weeds, and so on up the food chain. If insect resistance and herbicide tolerance are combined in the same crop variety, there may be few insects capable of feeding on the crops and few invertebrates and birds would be able to exploit the weed-free fields. In Europe there is already a massive declines in farmland birds, with several previously common species are now close to extinction.
Transgenic organisms also raise the issue of “Genetic Pollution”. This is a major concern to environmental scientists, conservation biologists and evolutionary geneticists alike, as it leads to a loss of pure scientific recourses. Genetic pollution is basically an uncontrollable and undesirable gene flow into wild populations. Scientists are very keen in the genetics of native populations. The idea of destroying natural gene pools by adding genes to and from organisms is unacceptable and is seen as sabotaging the billions of years worth of natural selection created by Mother Nature.
Similarly, introducing foreign genes into a species can also lead to an unwanted spread to non-target plants. The genes inserted in transgenic crops are often derived from other species, giving traits that are not present in wild populations. If introduced accidently, it may give an impact to the fitness and population dynamics of hybrids between the native plants.
The implementation of transgenic crops is also leading to the practice of monoculture. Monoculture is a method used in industrialized agriculture where it favours genetic uniformity. This is where vast fields are planted with a single high yielding variety, using expensive inputs such as hi-tech irrigation systems, fertilizer and pesticides to maximize production. Genetic uniformity invites disaster because it makes crops vulnerable to attacks, a pest or disease that strike one plant quickly spreads through out the crop.
As an impact from monoculture, the demand on genetically uniformed plants can lead to genetic erosion. Genetic erosion is a process whereby an already limited gene pool of an endangered species diminishes even more. In terms of transgenic plantations, even though on one hand uniformed transgenic plants are potentially high yielding under certain conditions, its uniformity in genetic material is actually destroying biodiversity even faster. This is because farmers now concentrate on a limited number of plant varieties with special genetic characteristics. As they plant the new transgenic seeds, natural seeds are eaten. In fact, genetic erosion of worldwide crops is increasing at a current annual rate of 1 to 2%. Since the middle of the century, a large proportion of the genetic diversity of the world’s top food crops has disappeared from the farmers worldwide.
In conclusion, despite the benefits and dreams of feeding the world through plant biotechnology, genetic engineered crops are in reality threatening biodiversity as it controls the genes according to what is needed only, rendering natural genetic construct as well as disturbing the natural ecological balance. Human beings should think twice before meddling with the building blocks of nature as it deeply disturbs the unique biodiversity we have today.
The author, Zaid Zainuddin, loves to enjoy biodiversity at the zoo. He also likes to eat polyploidy strawberries, sterile bananas and seedless watermelons; even though he knows they’re all genetically engineered.