Assessment of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Plants (AIGM)

More about the Programme

Genetically modified (GM) plants are approaching commercialisation and widespread deployment in Europe. Risk assessments supporting release applications have largely been based on assumptions that genetic modifications of plants will not alter their behaviour, or that of other organisms, in the natural environment. These assumptions are made from limited information on actual levels of gene flow occuring between crops and wild species and small scale experiments with GM plants and untransformed plants. Large scale releases of GM plants occuring in North America and other countries provide some additional information on risks but are not always relevant to European environments. There is thus concern that risk assessments are based on limited experimental data which do not fully take account of the novelty of the transgenes or the scale and scope of their ultimate commercial deployment.

There is also concern at the large number of different releases that are being proposed in Europe. Information on the transgene interactions within and between GM plants is extremely limited, as is information on the environmental impacts of multiple transformations in single plants, many of which could arise unintentionally.

An additional concern is that GM plants may require different agronomic management or may have agricultural consequences that impact on the environment, eg. changes in agrochemical usage, effects on predators etc. Agricultural impacts are not always considered in environmental risk assessments, and yet agriculture is a significant component of the total European environment.

A workshop in Cambridge, UK, in October 1997, sponsored by the European Science Foundation, brought together European scientists involved in environmental impact research, plant breeders and representatives of organisations involved in the regulation of GM plant releases. They discussed the range of transformations and plant species most likely to have environmental impacts. They agreed on a number of research priorities and also agreed that research in Europe required coordinating and enhancing so that scientific information could be collated and conclusions made more widely available to support risk assessments in European countries and elsewhere.

This Programme aims to coordinate the activities of the principal research programmes in Europe, to enhance them by recruiting younger research personnel to study in them, and to encourage these research programmes to respond to the new research priorities identified by the Programme. It will publicise the results of the research through conferences and workshops to a wide range of audiences in Europe particularly to countries with little experience with GM plants and risk assessments. Members of this Programme will be available to give expert views on risk assessments and to assist with the development of regulations based on sound scientific principles.


The Programme will bring together a high proportion of the research groups in Europe involved in risk assessment research who are specifically studying the genetics, ecology, pathology and agronomy of GM crop plants and their wild relatives. It will also bring together researchers from Botanical and ecological institutions who have been engaged in long term studies of gene flow and gene introgression in native flora. These research groups have presented reports of their research to the Steering Committee and at recent workshops and meetings attended by members of the Steering Committee. Many have also submitted their future research programmes to the Steering Committee. Combinations of the programmes together with additional research inputs from the ESF will provide multidisciplinary approaches to study the priority research issues identified by the Programme.

The individual research programmes will be coordinated and enhanced with additional projects to address the following broad areas of concern:

  • Whether genes and transgenes introgress across species and generic boundaries, and their interactions with plant genomes and other transgenes.
  • Whether transgenes will alter plants to the extent that they have novel ecological impacts.
  • Whether GM crops, either directly or through changes in management, would have impacts on biodiversity.
  • Whether transgenes or their products could be acquired by pathogens causing changes in their pathogenicity.

The Programme will address the above issues for a number of the most immediate and problematic releases of transgenic plants. The contributing scientists would provide a multidisciplinary approach to each research area by studying some or all of the following six aspects of each release:

(i) Gene/construct interactions, transgene stability, interspecific hybridisation and gene silencing.
(ii) Virus distribution and ecology in wild plant species, transgenic resistance stability, virus stability/hybridisation and trans-encapsidation.
(iii) Gene dispersal, gene introgression, GM plant invasiveness, persistance and impact on the natural environmental.
(iv) Gene dispersal in agricultural systems, the impacts of GM crops and their management on agricultural biodiversity.
(v) Mathematical modelling of the gene flow, dispersal and impact of releases.
(vi) Methods for monitoring gene flow, dispersal and impact of the transgene.


The scientific objectives of the Programme are as follows:

  1. To determine the interactions that will occur between plant genomes and a range of introduced constructs, the stability of these constructs, the reliability of gene expression and to understand the phenomena of gene silencing.
  2. To provide information on the behaviour and ecology of crop and closely related plant species and levels of gene flow and introgression between them.
  3. To determine the impact single and various combinations of transgenes will have on the behaviour and ecology of these plant species.
  4. To determine the impact single and multiple transgenes will have on the pathogens (especially viruses), pests and other organisms (eg mycorrhyza, pollinating insects etc) associated with these GM plants.
  5. To determine the agricultural impacts of GM crops and their relatives, the changes in management they will bring about and hence the impact on the agricultural environment.

Study of these 5 areas will lead towards the overall scientific objective which is:

To provide substantial scientific data on GM plants, their near relatives, the trans-genes, their interactions and their impacts on agriculture and the environment in order to provide a sound scientific basis for risk assessments in Europe.

This Programme and its scientific objectives are timely since research programmes in all the above areas have now commenced in some European countries. In addition large scale releases and commercialisation of GM crops has started so that meaningful studies can be conducted. It is important that information from this research is collated, analysed and shared with all European countries in time for considering both current and future, more problematic releases.

Top of page


  • Travel grants
  • Workshops
  • Conference on Introgression from genetically modified plants (GMP) to wild relatives and its consequences (University of Amsterdam, NL, 21-24 January 2003)

Top of page

Useful links

Bio-Scope Go to Website

Bio-Scope aims to give the internet community the chance to have easy access to scientific information on all levels, by offering a variety of electronic instruments, such as an infobase which can answer questions on various levels of scientific understanding with carefully selected keywords and with simple or sophisticated query logistics. It will also offer material for science writers and teachers, who want to give science based information on modern agriculture to their students and readers. Abstracts of many scientific and important newspaper articles will be available in English, but also in German and French. 

Bio-Scope also offers the possibility for experts and others to e.g. exchange views and plan concerted actions. It will also be a place where everybody can learn about important meetings on biotechnology and – last but not least, get an unbiased and daily updated account on important publications from newspapers to scientific publications.

Top of page