Assessing environmental risks of transgenic plants

David Andow, Claudia Zwahlen

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

256 Scopus citations


By the end of the 1980s, a broad consensus had developed that there were potential environmental risks of transgenic plants requiring assessment and that this assessment must be done on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the transgene, recipient organism, intended environment of release, and the frequency and scale of the intended introduction. Since 1990, there have been gradual but substantial changes in the environmental risk assessment process. In this review, we focus on changes in the assessment of risks associated with non-target species and biodiversity, gene flow, and the evolution of resistance. Non-target risk assessment now focuses on risks of transgenic plants to the intended local environment of release. Measurements of gene flow indicate that it occurs at higher rates than believed in the early 1990s, mathematical theory is beginning to clarify expectations of risks associated with gene flow, and management methods are being developed to reduce gene flow and possibly mitigate its effects. Insect pest resistance risks are now managed using a high-dose/refuge or a refuge-only strategy, and the present research focuses on monitoring for resistance and encouraging compliance to requirements. We synthesize previous models for tiering risk assessment and propose a general model for tiering. Future transgenic crops are likely to pose greater challenges for risk assessment, and meeting these challenges will be crucial in developing a scientifically coherent risk assessment framework. Scientific understanding of the factors affecting environmental risk is still nascent, and environmental scientists need to help improve environmental risk assessment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)196-214
Number of pages19
JournalEcology letters
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2006


  • Environmental risk assessment
  • Gene flow
  • Genetic engineering
  • Non-target effects
  • Resistance management
  • Tiered risk assessment
  • Transgenic plants


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