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Gene Flow and GM Foods

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 31 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Gene Flow And Gm Foods

Gene flow has become a more widely publicised issue in genetically modified (GM) foods over the last decade. As new research and studies have emerged on GM foods, there is a concern that the production of GM foods could lead to gene flow. For many people, however, the concept of gene flow is a confusing one that seems quite complex. While it can be complicated, the basics of gene flow are fairly straightforward.

Understanding Gene Flow And GM Foods

As the word 'flow,' implies, gene flow involves the movement of genes. In the case of GM foods, gene flow refers to gene movement from one organism to another. The area is a vast one that also encompasses the challenge of controlling gene flow. Even before a GM organism is approved for production and marketing, an assessment of the risk for gene flow has to be done to ensure its safety.

Organic Food, Conventional Crops And GM Foods

GM foods have the ability to affect both conventional crops and organic ones. In fact, they could even affect other GM crops grown in nearby fields. Finding a way for these different kinds of crops to co-exist without any problems is a difficult task. Given that a number of farmers and consumers want to avoid GM technology, it is important that GM crops are contained within the area in which they are grown, without spreading to organic or conventional crops.

How Big Of An Issue Is Gene Flow?

The extent of the issue is usually determined on a case-by-case basis as a new GM product or import is under review for authorisation in the United Kingdom (UK). Regulatory authorities have to determine if a transgene might be passed on to wild relatives and if so, how this will affect the environment.

The issue of co-existence is an important one to ensure that different kinds of crops can grow without harming other ones. Researchers are still trying to understand exactly what circumstances will result in gene transfer and to what extent this development will occur.


Cross-pollination is one type of gene flow that can occur with regards to GM crops. For instance, if a field of GM maize is grown nearby a field of conventional maize crops, then the pollen from the GM maize could very likely contaminate the conventional crops.

A great deal of attention has been given to the development of a system or way to determine what distance is safe and likely to prevent cross-pollination. Maintaining a sufficient distance between GM crops and non-GM crops is important to preventing cross-pollination types of gene flow.

Other Kinds Of Gene Flow

There are other ways in which gene flow can occur and have an effect on the environment. Another path is for plants grown from seed that is split by one crop into another. Also, there can be GM impurities in the seeds as well. Even after harvesting the crops, there can be a mixing of GM and non-GM organisms. This might occur during the storage process or even further ahead in the production and processing of the food.

Given the issue of gene flow, it is clear that it is a threat to different types of agriculture co-existing without mixing. The issue means that segregating crops is important although spatially, this can be difficult, depending on the geographic area. It further means that not only do GM seeds need to be carefully kept separate from non-GM seeds prior to harvesting, but that the harvesting process itself must be monitored and segregated. Afterwards, any remainder of previous crops could still cause gene flow when a new crop is harvested.

Preventing Gene Flow

Part of the difficulty in preventing gene flow is that researchers are still unsure exactly how to assess and predict when it will occur and if so, to what extent it will affect the environment. Until then, studies will have to focus on how we can understand the process and circumstances surrounding gene flow from GM foods. In this way, we can better safeguard our environment while safely harnessing any potential benefits from GM foods.

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