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Genetic pollution

Pronounced /dʒɪˈnɛtɪk pəˈl(j)uːʃn/Help with pronunciation

This has recently become a common term in the environmental movement and is increasingly turning up in newspaper reports. It was popularised by the American environmental campaigner Jeremy Rifkin in his book The Biotech Century, which was published in May 1998. He used it for the risk that genes from genetically modified organisms (GMOs in the jargon) could be dispersed as a result of them breeding with wild relatives, or even with unrelated species. As it is common for such genetic modification in plants to include resistance to control sprays, one result could be that weeds will become resistant to herbicides or pesticides, becoming, in other words of the moment, superweeds that are supercompetitive. The worst case is that such transformed species could spread widely, take over other habitats, and force rare or vulnerable wild species into extinction. This is one basis for the great controversy in Britain at the moment over genetically modified crops which has led to calls for a moratorium on their introduction.

Tens of thousands of novel transgenic bacteria, viruses, plants and animals could be released into the Earth’s ecosystems for commercial tasks ranging from “bio-remediation” to the production of alternative fuels. Some of those releases, however, could wreak havoc with the planet’s biosphere, spreading destabilizing and even deadly genetic pollution across the world.

Jeremy Rifin, The Biotech Century, 1998

I think that it is likely that we will be plagued by genetic pollution, and that we will look back and see chemical and nuclear pollution as not as significant — even though one brought us global warming and the other waste that we cannot deal with for thousands of years.

New Scientist, Oct. 1998

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Page created 13 Feb 1999