Many of these problems have been examined in various articles and studies, although they are rarely brought together to establish the picture of the entire environment.
Considering two of the primary genetic modifications involves plants that have the Bt toxin (i.e. Bt maize, soy) and plants that are Roundup resistant (RR). Both of these technologies are intended to protect the plant from insect pests (i.e. Bt toxin as pesticide) and plant pests (i.e. herbicides). As everyone is aware, the introduction of such traits also introduces a selection pressure on the targeted species. So, the question isn't whether such selection pressures are created. Instead the question is whether the use of these components can be varied enough to prevent any species from actively being selected for these resistant traits.
In truth, no one knows whether this is possible. Even the best plans will be subject to the actual execution of those plans in the field. It matters little what the "proper" scientific protocol is, if farmers don't consistently follow it. As an example, consider that one of the recommendations to avoid promoting herbicide resistance in weeds is to rotate crops, as well as herbicides, so that no single plant species experiences continued exposure which would tend to promote the selection pressures for resistance. However, if the crops being rotated are RR maize to RR soybeans, then the problem is aggravated because even though the crops are being rotated, the herbicide is not. Instead of achieving the desired result of mixing up the exposure for weeds, the grower would be increasing the likelihood of selecting weeds that are herbicide resistant. A recent study indicates that this is precisely what is occurring and that herbicide use is increasing in both quantity and variety.
Another problem is presented when we consider how undesirable genes that may be released into the environment can be "recalled". In examining the Starlink corn controversy, it has become clear that there is no means by which control can be exercised (1). As a result, it is important to recognize that while some crops may have difficulty cross-pollinating, this is hardly a universal condition, so we must recognize that any attempt to control genetic dispersal is something beyond our abilities.
This is further complicated by the fact that many patents have been granted to allow food plants like corn and rice to be the vehicles for developing other "products", such as pharmaceuticals (2). In other words, the corn produced would not be intended for human consumption but would merely act as a vehicle for producing a particular pharmaceutical product. However, if the genes or methods "escaped" into the environment, we can be reasonably certain that there would be no way to contain the dispersal of those genes.
These problems alone [herbicide resistant weeds, pesticide resistant insects, and unintended genetic dispersal to conventional plants] are serious with few adequate answers, or few answers that are exempt from corruption by human error and mistakes (3).
However, there is an even more serious aspect to this entire discussion that has been largely ignored in the public discourse. These are represented by technologies referred to as "Terminator" and "Traitor" [collectively known as Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURT)]. What's important to recognize here is that neither of these technologies are intended to enhance a farmer's production, nor provide anything positive to the plant. These are technologies whose sole purpose is to protect intellectual property and control market share. The "Terminator" technologies, or "suicide seeds" introduce a trait that ensures that second generation seeds are sterile. This prevents seeds from being collected and saved requiring replacement of new seeds for planting. "Traitor" technology creates a requirement that for desirable traits to be expressed by the modified gene, then some additional chemical ["inducible promoters"] must be applied to turn "on" the gene. In other words, it is now possible to produce a Roundup Resistant plant that actually requires Roundup [or some other chemical] be applied in order to activate the desired trait [i.e Bt toxin gene activation], since the purpose of "Traitor" technologies is to provide the seed producers the ability to turn genes "on" or "off".
The arguments of protecting intellectual property rights are unconvincing, since there is no provision nor mechanism to prevent other researchers from determining what genes have been modified and how they are expressed. In short, research that could actually compromise intellectual property can't be prevented by this means. What these technologies represent is the ability to control the market by creating a dependence on the seed producers. In this case, since seeds can't be saved because of the "Terminator" technology, and the use of "Traitor" technology could also force additional chemicals be purchased to maintain the viability of the plants. As a result, this mechanism will not protect intellectual property as much as it will "lock" farmers into a particular market.
I have seen little or no discussion regarding the risks associated with these types of technologies "escaping" into the environment. There has been virtually no public discussion about the unthinkable possibility of actually "weaponizing" this technology (4).
Lest anyone think that this is some aspect of a conspiracy theory, it is worth considering that Monsanto now currently holds patents on this technology with little more than their assurance that they won't use it. As a result, it is important to recognize that it isn't that these technologies aren't available, but rather simply that corporations, currently, have indicated that they won't use this technology (5). What assurance is there that business conditions in the future won't create motivation for corporations to renege on this promise? In short, this is a technology that I wouldn't trust in the hands of governments, let alone corporations whose primary objective is to simply maintain their profit picture. This level of control over human food production should never be allowed in the hands of any single group.
For those that want to complain about restricting technologies, the truth is that we do it all the time. Companies are not permitted to develop nuclear or biological weapons, just as they are restricted from selling certain technologies to other countries [i.e. computer technology]. This is precisely where government, despite its imperfections, has a distinct role and it is ultimately up to the people to control this type of technology, not private interests.
Let's also be clear that these issues are not directly the result of biotechnology. They are almost purely business and policy decisions. Whatever direction events take in the future, the science will have little input into the results.
(1) What is telling is that while this was a relatively small planting of corn, even 9 years later there were still traces of the Cry9C protein detected in the food supply. This did not present any specific kind of hazard, but illustrates how difficult such dispersals are to contain.
(2) The targeted plant may not necessarily be designated as a food source.
"INB Biotechnologies (Philadelphia) is developing a nontoxic anthrax vaccine through the transgenic modification of petunias, causing the plant to manufacture new proteins, which when eaten prompt the development of anti-anthrax antibodies. So, instead of "eat your peas," the imperative will be to "eat your petunias!"(3)
Transgenic plants have already been shown to transfer certain genes to wild relatives or bacteria. The possibility that the terminator gene could be transferred is not denied by anyone. In fact, the tendency of genetically manipulated plants to "leak" traits is greater than others. "They learned that the transgenic plants were 20 times more likely to outcross than the mutants-they were "promiscuous," as a headline in the journal Nature put it. "Nobody knows why," Bergelson says. "We're still trying to find the mechanism that drives the pattern we saw. There's a lot we don't understand, including how common it is." "It's inevitable that they will get out," says ecologist Joy Bergelson of the University of Chicago.
(4) "Weaponeers have only just begun to explore the potential of the biotechnological revolution."
“The Coming Explosion of Silent Weapons”, by Commander Steven Rose (Naval War College Review, Summer 1989)
"If this prediction is correct, biotechnology will profoundly alter the nature of weaponry and the context within which it is employed. During World War II and the Cold War, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union developed and field-tested biological weapons designed to attack people and food crops over vast areas."
(5) It is extremely disconcerting to note that the "promise" to not use these technologies couldn't even be sustained for a few paragraphs.
"We stand firmly by this commitment. We have no plans or research that would violate this commitment in any way."While a mere three paragraphs later we read:
"If Monsanto should decide to move forward in the area of GURTs, we would do so in consultation with experts and stakeholders, including NGOs."