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2-Plants: Workshop on ecological monitoring of GM crops

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TITLE:  NRC holds workshop on ecological monitoring of GM crops
SOURCE: ISB News Report, by Eric M. Hallerman
        Information Systems for Biotechnology
DATE:   September 2000

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NRC holds workshop on ecological monitoring of GM crops

The National Research Council's (NRC) Standing Committee on 
Biotechnology, Food and Fiber Production, and the Environment 
sponsored a Workshop on Ecological Monitoring of Genetically Modified 
Plants on July 13-14 in Washington, D.C. Workshop presentations 
collectively described the current state of knowledge regarding 
ecological effects of GM plants, limitations of current knowledge, 
and potential future directions for ecological monitoring. The 
workshop was attended by over 100 academics, government officials, 
representatives of non-governmental organizations, and private 

The workshop included 16 presentations by individual researchers and 
four panel discussions involving 18 speakers. Many speakers made 
multiple points. Hence, only highlights can be presented here. 
Barbara Schaal (Washington University), co-chair of the Standing 
Committee, introduced the workshop by discussing the context for 
short- and long-term ecological monitoring of GM plants. Paul 
Waggoner (Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station) described 
ongoing programs for monitoring plant pathogens, noting relevant 
aspects of how to organize, finance, and maintain effective 
monitoring programs. Peter Day (Rutgers University) considered the 
issue of the baseline for assessing benefits and risks posed by 
production of GM plants, arguing that agricultural production of non-
GM plants was the most appropriate baseline.

Allison Power (Cornell University) pointed out that most monitoring 
research has focused on estimating the probability of an event as 
opposed to the extent of the associated hazard. For example, 
concerning GM plants expressing viral genes to achieve virus 
resistance, the probability of recombination between transgenic and 
wild-type viruses is known to be high, but the extent of the hazard 
posed is unknown, and should become the focus of monitoring. She and 
several other speakers discussed the need for designing experiments 
robust enough to avoid Type II experimental error, the error of 
failing to detect a significant effect.

The role of ecological monitoring within a framework of adaptive 
management was discussed by Anne Kapuscinski (University of 
Minnesota). She suggested that results of monitoring should inform an 
iterative process of public policy design and implementation. In a 
panel on international perspectives on monitoring, Jeremy Sweet 
(National Institute of Agricultural Botany, UK) pointed out that 
monitoring should address gene flow from GM crops not only to wild 
relatives, but also to non-GM crops of the same species in nearby 
plantings. Rob McDonald (Aventis, Canada) noted that design of a 
monitoring study should be specific to the crop, trait, environment, 
and event of interest. He described a concept of product stewardship 
in which a company makes a commitment to realize the benefits of GM 
crops in a safe and sustainable manner. Monitoring for gene flow from 
GM canola to weeds using the green fluorescent protein gene as a 
biomarker for pollen dispersal and gene flow was described by Neal 
Stewart (University of North Carolina - Greensboro).

Presentations on the second day of the workshop addressed the role of 
modeling in establishing a monitoring program, and monitoring for 
pest resistance in target pests, herbicide tolerance in weeds, 
effects on non-target species, and evolution of pathogen resistance. 
Ecological modeler Steve Bartell (Cadmus Group) discussed use of 
models to determine tradeoffs among the frequency, scale, and extent 
of a monitoring program, and described the structure of a spatially 
explicit model of a farm using Bt corn. Fred Gould (North Carolina 
State University) identified major issues in monitoring for 
resistance in insect pests targeted by Bt in GM corn, concluding that 
mobility of the insects affected both the desired proportion of non-
Bt refuge areas and the spatial extent of monitoring for novel Bt 
resistance. Guenther Stotzky (New York University) presented 
laboratory results showing slow degradation of the Bt toxin, slowed 
degradation of crop residues, and no significant indirect effects of 
Bt toxins on soil microbes, earthworms, or nematodes.

Two panel discussions focussed on monitoring for effects on 
ecological communities and changing farm practices. Mark Lipson 
(Organic Farming Research Foundation) questioned the extent of 
farmers' compliance with requirements for refuge areas within Bt 
plantings and the reliance on farmers to report unexpected ecological 
effects of GM plants. William Hallman (Rutgers University) discussed 
public perception of risk posed by GM plants and the implications for 
development of an effective risk communication strategy. He pointed 
out that people are averse to perceived unfairness or lack of control 
over their lives, and that they want their questions answered, not to 
be educated about plant biotechnology.

In a wrap-up session, a panel considered criteria and priorities for 
monitoring. Fred Gould pointed out that it is difficult to be sure 
what to monitor a priori. Steven Duke (USDA - Agricultural Research 
Service) emphasized the importance of baseline monitoring to support 
distinction of what ecological effects are attributable to a GM plant 
and what effects track baseline changes. Steve Bartell suggested 
selecting ecological endpoints that are scaled to modeling resources, 
use of sensitivity analysis to identify key uncertainties, focusing 
on ecological function as well as structure, and practicing 
monitoring within an adaptive management framework. Max Carter, a 
farmer from Georgia, noted that farmers grow GM plants in order to 
realize a profit and, for purposes of establishing criteria and 
priorities for monitoring, suggested gathering farmers to ask them 
what they see in terms of adverse ecological effects. Key issues 
identified by Barbara Schaal in her concluding remarks included 
questions on post-commercialization monitoring needs, experimental 
design when planning monitoring, consequences of ecological effects 
of GM plants, who should monitor and who should pay for monitoring, 
and engaging the public in respectful dialog.

A summary of the workshop will be published within the next several 
months. A listing of NRC publications can be found by accessing http:/
/ and clicking on "Publications." 

Eric M. Hallerman
Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences
Virginia Tech


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