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Ecological Risk and Surprise on the GMO Roller Coaster

by Ed Grumbine
Winter 2002

Next time you're dangling from a rope in the middle of a Yosemite big wall, ripping downhill on a bike headed into a logging road hairpin or zipping shut your tent in occupied hyena habitat deep in the African bush, take a moment to ponder all the ways you get yourself going too high, too fast and too far out for your own good.

We all take risks and manage them as best we can. Consider climbing rope: When it becomes visibly frayed, you replace it. Few people tackle Moab's bike trails knowing that their brake pads are as smooth as slickrock. And I do not go to sleep in the bush wearing the Baggies that I drenched with anchovy oil during dinner. Risk is part of the fabric of life. We can learn to deny, avoid and reduce risk, but we can never eliminate surprise. We all know this now – post-September 11, 2001 – more than we ever did before. Yet while humans will always struggle to live with uncertainty, surprise is one of nature's ways of running the world. Unpredictability and nature's creative power are what yield biodiversity – the bewildering array of tropical orchids, the mysterious arc of monarch butterfly migration and the habits of bears all trace back to the endless recombination of the genetic building blocks of life.

We don't run the world. But with the creation of transgenic, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), we are acting as if we do. And because we think we are running the world, we have never thought through what risk really means as we splice our way into Earth's genetic pool. Like a climber on a 5.10 pitch with a thunderstorm approaching who discounts the behavior of lightning, if we don't gauge the risk of GMOs we can never judge well whether we should proceed or retreat.

Some would argue that with GMOs the decision to proceed has already been made. In 1996, four million acres of GMO crops were planted worldwide. In 1999, that figure had increased to 87 million acres. So far, few negative consequences to biodiversity have occurred and despite the hype, few benefits have accrued. Yields (and profits) have increased modestly and herbicide use has decreased about one percent.

But risk should not be measured in hindsight.

Both mountaineers and scientists gauge future risk against conditions in the here and now. A climber observes peaks and weather, ponders "what if?" and makes decisions. Using this same approach, when biologists measure what is known about transgenic plants, three kinds of ecological "what ifs?" come into focus.

The first risk is that GMO plants will survive, reproduce and sustain themselves outside of cultivation. This could lead to herbicide – and insecticide – resistant superweeds that could become highly invasive. Experiments done to evaluate this risk suggest that it will happen occasionally. The consequences are unknown.

About the Author
Ed Grumbine grows non-GMO crops in a small garden in the hills outside of Santa Cruz, California. He directs the Sierra Institute undergraduate wilderness program through UC Santa Cruz Extension (www.ucsc-extension.edu/sierra) and has published extensively on biodiversity and wildness.