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Assessment & Impacts » Ecological

Title: Transgene Spread Poses Risks to the Environment
Publication date: March 04, 2014
Posting date: March 04, 2014



Dear Friends and Colleagues 

Re: Transgene Spread Poses Risks to the Environment

It has been about 20 years since genetically modified (GM) crops were introduced commercially. There have been many known cases in different countries where transgenes have crossed with plants such as local crop varieties and wild relatives and spread beyond their areas of cultivation.

A new study published by the journal, Environmental Sciences Europe, examines scientific reports of such occurrences. Important examples are bentgrass, oilseed rape and cotton. The report highlights factors that favor transgene escape; in particular, wild relatives that can cross with the crop plants are a major factor in the unintended spread of the transgenes. The report stresses that there are “significant uncertainties in predicting which transgenes will escape and how they will interact with the environment”.  

The authors warn that the Precautionary Principle can only be applied where efficient measures to ensure the removal of GM organisms from the environment are available. Otherwise, it will not be possible to mitigate any undesirable effects. Because of the implications of this and the gaps in knowledge, the authors call for stricter regulations to be implemented immediately to reduce the incidence of transgene escape into the environment.

The full article is available at: The abstract and conclusions are reproduced below.

With best wishes 

Third World Network

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Citation: Bauer-Panskus, A., Breckling, B., Hamberger, S., & Then, C. (2013). Cultivation-independent establishment of genetically engineered plants in natural populations: current evidence and implications for EU regulation. Environmental Sciences Europe, 25(1), 34. 


About 20 years after the market introduction of the first GM plants, we review whether or not uncontrolled spread occurred. We summarise cases documented in the scientific literature and derive conclusions for the regulation of the authorisation of new events. Several cases documented in North and Central America and Japan show that transgenes have spread beyond cultivation areas. Important examples are bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera), oilseed rape (Brassica napus) and cotton (Gossypium hirsutum). Several factors can be identified as relevant for transgene dispersal in the environment. Grasses (Poaceae), in particular, show a high potential for persistence and invasiveness, and wild relatives that can cross with the crop plants are a major factor in the unintended spread of the transgenes. There are significant uncertainties in predicting which transgenes will escape and how they will interact with the environment. For example, climate change is likely to have a major impact on the invasive potential of some plant species. The uncontrolled spread of transgenes is therefore a remaining challenge for regulators. We discuss some of these issues in the context of EU regulations since these regulations explicitly refer to the precautionary principle in the assessment of uncertainties. We found the that the precautionary principle as established in EU Directive 2001/18 can only be applied where efficient measures are available to remove genetically engineered organisms from the environment should this become necessary. If a removal from the environment would not be practically feasible, undesirable developments could not be mitigated.


There is scientific evidence that GM plants exist which have escaped spatio-temporal control and introgressed into natural populations. The centres of origin of the respective plants are amongst the regions of particular concern.

Measures should be taken immediately to reduce uncontrolled further spread of transgenes into the environment. In the midterm, adequate regulations should be put in place that will prevent new problems in this context.

The cases as documented highlight current gaps in knowledge and make stricter regulation imperative in regard to experimental releases, transport and commercial cultivation of genetically engineered organisms if

(a) they can persist and invade the environment after unintentional escape from containment;

(b) there are major doubts about whether the transgenes can be retrieved from the environment within a reasonable period of time if urgency requires;

(c) it is already known that the transgenes will persist and/or show invasive behaviour after release into the environment.

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