Gene technology and environmental risks
Gene technology in Finland
Gene technology is widely used in basic research in Finland. Additionally, about 120 biotechnology companies in the medical, diagnostic, biomaterial, foodstuffs and chemicals industries currently use gene technology for their research and development purposes. Almost all current applications using genetically modified organisms (GMO) take place in contained conditions (they are not released into the environment). In addition, several field trials involving GM crops, trees and microbes have been carried out. No GM crops are cultivated in Finland as yet, but one GM microbe product designed to measure traces of antibiotics in milk was approved for the EU market, but is no longer in use.
Possible environmental impacts of GMOs in Finland
Key concerns associated with the use of gene technology include the possible uncontrolled spreading of GMOs in the environment, the possible integration of transferred genes (transgenes) into other organisms (relatives or non-relatives), putative effects on non-target organisms and the indirect environmental impacts of cultivating GMOs. These indirect impacts may include changes in biodiversity due to changed agricultural procedures in the use of herbicide-tolerant GM crops, or effects of insecticide-producing GM crops on predatory species that feed on the target insects.
The possible impact of e.g. the possible spread of transgenes into the wild relatives of GM plants is very difficult to assess. Gene flow has been especially discussed in the context of forest trees, due to their ecological and economic importance in Finland. Also oilseed rape may be of special concern as it can interbreed with turnip rape and potentially also with some wild crucifers.
Cold winters and short growing seasons
When assessing the environmental risks of GMOs, one must take into consideration the special features of the local environment. Finland's cold winters and short growing season significantly affect the spread and propagation of organisms, as well as the interactions between them. On the other hand, due to short growing season the flowering times of GM crops and their wild relatives may coincide, making interbreeding more likely. However, in comparison with Central and Southern Europe, the most common GM plants have few or no compatible wild relatives in Finland. Oilseed rape is an exception having several wild relatives in Finland.
Cold winters slow down the decomposition of substances in the soil. This should be taken into consideration when e.g. assessing the decomposition rates of pesticides used on herbicide-tolerant GM crops.
Finland has very large areas of natural habitats compared to many Central European countries. These habitats may be fragile, and it is vital that their biodiversity should be preserved. The possible impacts of GM crops on any extensive natural habitats in the vicinity of GM cultivation must be carefully assessed. The special features of Finnish forests must likewise be carefully considered in the environmental risk assessments of GM trees. Norway spruce, Scotch pine and silver birch are the key species of Finnish forest ecosystems. A large number of organisms are dependent on them in various ways.
The possible indirect ecological impacts of GM plants in Finnish conditions should be examined in detail, using carefully selected indicator species. The impacts of GM crops will largely be limited to farmland habitats.
Legislation on gene technology in Finland
The Gene Technology Act controls the contained us of GMOs and the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. The aim of the Act is to promote safe and ethical use of gene technology according to precautionary principle, and to protect the environment and human and animal health. The latest revised version came into force on 15.9.2004, bringing Finnish legislation up to date with the requirements of the EU Directives 219/90/EC, 98/81/EC and 2001/18/EC, which regulate the contained use of genetically modified micro-organisms and deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. These directives are directly applied into the national legislation in Finland.
The Gene Technology Act (No.377/1995) is available in English
In accordance with the Gene Technology Act, more detailed regulations and instructions have been adopted to complement the provisions of the Act and the Decree (928/2004), including: Decree of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (90/2005) on the differentiated procedure concerning deliberate release of GMOs into the environment in any other purpose than placing on the market and Decree of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (110/2005) on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment in any other purpose than placing on the market.
Finland has ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2004. The Protocol is set up under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, in order to regulate international trade of living modified organisms (LMOs). LMO means any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.
GMO registration system and supervision
Continuous supervision of the use of GMOs in Finland is based on the official national registration system. All applications and notifications submitted to the Gene Technology Board concerning the use of GMOs must include details of the results of environmental risk assessments performed by the applicants. These assessments should also cover risks to the health of humans and animals.