The Impacts of Genetically Modified Organisms on ecosystems: A Norwegian-Brazilian research project discovers worrisome consequences of the use of GMO
¿Cuáles son las consecuencias para las abejas de vivir en las inmediaciones de los cultivos de maíz genéticamente modificado? ¿Y los productos genéticamente modificados tienen un impacto en el tamaño de una población de escarabajos peloteros? Un Proyecto de investigación cooperativa noruego - brasileño está investigando estas y muchas otras preguntas relacionadas con el impacto del uso de organismos genéticamente modificados (OGM).
Genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) are a broad group of plants, animals, and bacteria engineered mainly for agricultural production. Brazil is the second largest producer of plant GM-products in the world, only behind the United States. GMO's are widely used in the production of soybeans and maize, but in Brazil only a few studies have investigated the consequences these products can have on human health and the ecosystem. Students and professors from the Centre for Biosafety (GenØk) in Norway and the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC) in Brazil are participating in a cooperative project to build competence about genetically modified organisms, and how to preserve the biodiversity and biosafety in areas affected by these products. The cooperation is creating a South-American hub where knowledge about biotechnology is exchanged between the countries.
The cooperation GenØk-UFSC
The cooperation between GenØk and UFSC started in 2009 and receives financial support from the Fk system (Fredskorpset) and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). The cooperation started with eight laboratory-experiment projects. The participants in the project are five professors and nine master and Ph.D. students from UFSC and seven professors from GenØk. A parallel project is underway at the North-West University in South Africa. The South-South and South-North cooperation will provide comparative studies about biodiversity, ecosystem resilience and GMO's safety under different environmental and cultural conditions.
Two of the project initiators are Professor Terje Traavik from GenØk and Professor Rubens Nodari from UFSC. Professor Terje Traavik has a Ph.D. from the University of Tromsø (UIT). He has more than forty years experience with research and academic work, and is working as a researcher at GenØk. He is also a member of the Norwegian biotechnology committee and official councillor for the European Medicines Agency (EMEA).
Professor Rubens Nodari has a master degree in agronomy from the University of Passo Fundo and a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of California at Davis. He contributed to the establishment of the first Brazilian master degree in genetics resources at UFSC. Professor Nodari has been member of the scientific board of Action Network Alternative Agriculture (RAAA) since 2005. Nodari's main focus is promoting agroecological systems to produce foods and the implications of release of transgenic seeds.
Lack of research
In an interview professor Nodari explains why the cooperation between Norway and Brazil has been important for the development of new studies.
- Very little research has been done about the impact of GMO's in Brazil, despite of the extensive use of these products. The reason for this is that it is almost impossible to obtain financial support for projects that investigate the possible impacts these products can have on human health and ecosystem. Most projects concerning GMO's are financed by the private sector and the main objective in these projects is to develop new products. The funding from the Fk system and NORAD is therefore very important for our project.
Professor Nodari explains that the use of GMO's is far more restricted in Norway than in Brazil.
- Norway follows the precautionary principle when considering the use of GMO's. The principle states that you can't authorize the use of a product that can possibly harm the environment. Norwegian law does not forbid GMO's, but before any products are allowed, they have to be tested according to strict regulations. This is unfortunately not the case in Brazil.
- The benefit for Norway in this project is that it will provide information to the government and the consumers about grain products that are imported to Norway. The cooperation also gives the opportunity to research in a different environment and provides knowledge about how we can preserve the ecosystem in these areas.
Nodari points out that the Norwegian idea of independent research has been important for the development of the project.
- Independent research is very important in biotechnology and especially for the development of new studies. GenØk also has a holistic approach to research and this is important in biotechnology because it is a field with various implications. The use of GMO's has diverse consequences - not only on human health and in the ecosystem, but also on social relations, the economy and culture. An example of a cultural consequence is the impact GMO's have on the use of corn in indigenous rituals. In other words, we need a holistic vision to understand all the consequences of the use of transgenic modified organisms.
So far, results of laboratory experiments indicate that GMO's have a negative impact on animals, plants and ecosystem.
- In Tromsø we did a project where we fed a Daphnia Magna, a biological model organism used in studies of toxicity, with genetically modified maize and with non GM-maize. If the product affects the Daphnia, the product will most likely also attack humans. We compared how the different maize ration influenced the Daphnia's dynamics. The mortality rate was not affected by GM-maize, but we discovered that the reproduction rate was reduced. Daphnia has a particular characteristic because it normally reproduces asexually, but under stress it switches to sexually reproduction. In our experiments we found that when Daphnia is fed with GM-maize, it starts to reproduce sexually. This indicates that a modified genetic product creates stress.
- We also did a study where we compared the proteins of genetically modified maize and a non GM-maize. The plants share some similar proteins, and some are different. But what caught our attention was that one of the proteins in the GM-maize is very similar to an already known allergenic protein.
- In a third research project we evaluated the diversity of insects in soil were genetically modified maize is grown and compared this with the soil in non-GM maize fields. The research revealed that in soil planted with GM-maize some of the insect species suffered a population reduction, meanwhile some species were benefited. In other words, we found out that the genetically modified products alter the dynamics of the insect species. The most evident reduction of population was among Scarab beetles (dung beetles). The reduction of these insects affects the removing of feces, the aeration of the soil, incorporation of organic matter and seed dispersal. A master student is continuing this work by studying how the GMO's affect the dung beetles. The experiment is taking place in a laboratory with cameras, and the plan is to feed animals with GM-maize, and give the feces to the Scarab beetles to see how they are affected.
One of the on-going projects is a study about how the pollen from transgenic maize affects beehive's wellbeing. The researchers will study if the pollen has impacts on the queen bee’s oviposition, the reproduction rate and the development of the bee grubs.
Problems with obtaining material
Professor Nodari reveals that obtaining material for the experiments has been the main challenge during the research process.
-The problem is that companies won't provide material to us because they know we are questioning the impacts of these products. Another major challenge is to convince the Brazilian government that independent scientific studies about these products are important, and that the government ought to finance it. We hope that the funding from the Fk system and NORAD will raise awareness about this in Brazil.
Creating awareness among consumers
Professor Nodari hopes that the results can change the politics related to GM-products is Brazil.
- I hope that our research results can change the way GMO's are analyzed in Brazil. As it is today, a product is approved for use without sufficient scientific studies. We want to contribute to change this process; actually, we have to change this process. The precautionary principle states that you can't authorize the use of a product that can possibly harm the environment, but the Brazilian Officials and GMO's producers ignore this rule. We are therefore working to increase the support for the precautionary principle, especially among representatives of the Brazilian government. The objective is that the Brazilian government recognizes our results and that the National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CNTBio) will use the findings in their future work. I also hope that the project will approach to people outside the university and that it will raise awareness about GMO-products among both farmers and consumers.
The contamination of local maize variants
The Norwegian biologist Hanna Bjørgaas is working as researcher for the GenØk-UFSC cooperation. She is currently doing a fieldwork among small farmers in São Miguel do Oeste, west in the state Santa Catarina. She is combining interviews and laboratory tests to find out if genetic maize crops have a negative impact on the local maize plants in the region.
- These local maize variants contain more protein, iron and antioxidants than the GM-maize. There exists a great variety of local maize plants in Santa Catarina. You can buy blue, red, black and white maize at the local marketplace. The plants are also adapted to the native environment, and are therefore often more resistant to local diseases. The local maize plants have a genetic variability it is important to preserve, says Bjørgaas.
- My objective is to find out what happened with these local maize variants after the GM-maize was introduced in Brazil in 2008. I suspect that the gene from the GM-maize contaminates the local maize plants and that this contamination results in a loss of local diversity. If a transgene spreads into a local maize crop it can be impossible to prevent further spreading. There are done few studies about the consequences this can have on the ecosystem, the biodiversity and the farmer’s socioeconomic situations.
Hanna is working together with the Movement of Small Farmers (MPA). MPA is developing projects to preserve the local maize variants in Brazil and Hanna is using their systems to investigate whether the local maize plants are "polluted" by transgenes or not.
- Unfortunately, I discovered a lot of contamination of transgenes. Now I will start the work to document the findings, and investigate the biological, social and economic consequences of the contamination, tells Bjørgaas.