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Assessing and Monitoring the Impacts of Genetically modified plants on Agro-ecosystems

Periodic Report Summary 2 - AMIGA (Assessing and Monitoring the Impacts of Genetically modified plants on Agro-ecosystems)

Project Context and Objectives:
Genetically Modified (GM) crops outside Europe occupy relevant surfaces mainly with commodity crops (maize, cotton, soybean and oilseed rape). In the EU the situation is quite different, and in 2012 only GM maize was cultivated on 129,071 ha in 5 countries. Three GM events, maize MON810, maize T25 and potato EH92-527-1 (Amflora, now withdrawn from the market), have been approved for cultivation, while several GM products have been approved for import and processing purposes.
The possible environmental impacts of GM crops are still a controversial issue in Europe. The risk assessment framework has recently been reinforced by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) whose guidance document (GD) requires harmonized and efficient methodologies. The GD issued in 2010 has increased the requirements for applicants that seek GM crop admission in Europe in several areas, such as:
- Impacts on Non Target Organisms (NTOs e.g. natural enemies and pollinators);
- Impacts on soil biodiversity and biology;
- long-term effects on the environment, biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles;
- Impact of farming practices, with the need to take into account the diversity of management systems that may be associated to GM crops.

The research project AMIGA (Assessing and monitoring Impacts of Genetically modified plants on Agro-ecosystems) aims at meeting this challenge, by:
• Providing baseline data on biodiversity in selected agro-ecosystems and adjacent habitats through field surveys in non-GM cultivations in five different geographical European regions and build a database of species assemblages and ecological functional groups in maize and potato;
• Helping to translate regional protection goals into measurable assessment endpoints by establishing a link between functional groups of arthropod species active in the two selected agro-ecosystems;
• Defining lists of suitable bioindicators (species assemblages and/or ecosystem functions) fine-tuned for specific European regions to provide guidance on the selection of relevant test species;
• Improving knowledge on potential long-term environmental effects of GM plants by assembling background information on change in land use, cropping practices and the economic returns of arable farming;
• Providing examples for testing the efficacy of the EFSA Guidelines for the ERA of GM plants and produce standardized protocols for ERA in laboratory and field experiments;
• Exploring possible strategies for data-driven post market monitoring of GM plants and implement cost-efficient monitoring schemes;
• Estimating the compatibility and sustainability of GM crops within the principles of Integrated Pest Management;
• Evaluating the potential risks of GM crops for pollinators and pollination services
• Providing a systematic analysis of economic aspects of cultivation of GM plants
• Setting a training and communication plan that addresses current public concerns about GM plants in Europe.
More generally, AMIGA project aims to improve the risk assessment process in Europe with the following goals: i) reduce uncertainty in decision-making for the cultivation of GM plants in Europe by developing and verifying robust ERA methods based on testable hypotheses that seek to aid the decision making process; ii) increase confidence in the practicability of EFSA GD for ERA; and iii) contribute to the development of more effective post-market environmental monitoring designs and risk mitigation procedures.
Twenty-two partners, representing 14 EU countries and Argentina are involved in AMIGA activities, which are centred on 11 work packages.

Project Results:
To prepare a list of relevant protection goals, a survey was conducted with experts from EU Member States. Protected species and areas were indicated as most relevant for environmental risk assessment. A literature surveys to assess the current status of knowledge on the trophic webs in maize and potato agro-ecosystems, including the EFSA arthropod data base. Further data obtained in specific field surveys in different regions will be included to complement the existing information. Laboratory studies are being conducted using focal arthropod species selected according to the criteria indicated in the EFSA Guidance Document on the risk assessment for Genetically modified plants (GMPs). With the support of data collected in the experimental fields a list of potential indicator species will be prepared.
A list of indicators for environmental changes due to agricultural practices was prepared based on existing data from 5 European regions. These indicators are now being tested in other AMIGA work packages to select suitable indicators for long term effects.
Field experiments with GMPs were conducted with maize (5 countries) and potato (2 countries). Rhizosphere samples were collected from field trials to characterize the responsiveness of different functional guilds of arthropods and microorganisms to GM crops. Focal species have been selected for ongoing nematode and earthworm bioassays. Selection of above-ground arthropod NTOs for lab, greenhouse and field bioassays was finalized. Bioassays including herbivores and their natural enemies are ongoing, measurement endpoints that are suitable predictor for immediate and delayed effects are used. The experimental designs and protocols for field and laboratory studies were designed according to the requirement of the EFSA Guidance Document. After the first field season, protocols were amended, based on the experience earned, and applied in further field experiments. The statistical model previously prepared in the specific work package was used to support experimental design for difference and equivalence testing approach.
An in vitro rearing method was developed to expose honey bee larvae to GM toxins under controlled laboratory conditions. A protocol for testing effects of GM toxins on solitary wild bee larvae (Osmia cornuta) was developed. Behavioural observations are being conducted in a flight room with adults of Bombus terrestris.
An inventory of existing butterfly monitoring schemes was completed and butterfly sampling was conducted for two following seasons in 3 countries. A field monitoring on commercial GMHT crops is ongoing in Argentina on GM Sorghum, to characterize existing resistant populations. These area wide samplings and existing modelling approaches (e.g.for estimating effects on non-target Lepidoptera and on weed abundance and diversity) are being used to indicate possible effective strategies to be used in post market environmental monitoring of GMPs.
Field experiments have been conducted to assess the feasibility of using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs, including GM maize or potato. Locally-appropriate practices have been included in the protocols for IPM to reduce pesticide use, and enhance ecosystem services.
An economic model has been developed to explore a range of GM adoption scenarios in Europe. Further development of case studies will successively demonstrate the financial impact of growing GMPs at farm level in representative EU regions.
A constant dialogue with interested stakeholders using different media is conducted using the project's web site, the production of a newsletter, press releases and interviews. Specific actions were undertaken to communicate with targeted stakeholders (e.g. the stakeholder consultation platform, the organization of a summer school).

Potential Impact:
AMIGA will contribute to facilitate the implementation of the new principles included in the “Guidance on the environmental risk assessment of genetically modified plants” of the European Food Safety Authority, and to harmonize approaches, methods and tools among applicants. The project will deliver validated and cost effective methodologies on key aspects of environmental risk assessment such as: impacts on non-target organisms, soil biology, post-market environmental monitoring, long term effects. In addition, the biogeographical variation across Europe is specifically addressed by the large geographical representation in the project team which will conduct research on baseline biodiversity and assessment endpoints in five European regions (Boreal, Atlantic, Central, Mediterranean and Balkans). This will enable to consider the regional variability in terms of climatic, agricultural and socio-economic conditions.
The methodologies developed during the project and the results obtained will provide scientific support to risk assessors, risk managers and regulators both at European and national level with benefits to the quality of safety assessment of future possible introductions of GM crops in Europe.
It is expected that the scientific results obtained in AMIGA will produce advances, among other, in:
- Selection of focal species of NTOs in European environments;
- Defining similarities and differences in biodiversity in agro-ecosystems in different regions;
- Producing protocols for biosafety experiments tailored at detecting acute and chronic effects, impacts at organismal and population levels;
- Modeling spatial effects of GM plants on non-target Lepidoptera;
- Modeling long term environmental effects by analyzing the main drivers of change experienced in agriculture;
- Focusing “hot-spots” areas for post-market monitoring programs;
- Determining the extent of European farmers’ economic advantage of cultivating GM or non GM crops
- Evaluating the compatibility of GM crops with the principles of Integrated Pest Management, which represent the only option of pest management in the EU after 2014;
- Producing software to support the analysis for difference and equivalence tests
AMIGA project operates in a hotly debated area for the EU where, unlikely other geographic areas, the dispute on GM organisms is still polarized between “for and against” and the positions are also very different between Member States. The biggest effort being made by the members of the Consortium is to shed light on contentious issues (e.g. receiving environments, non-target organisms) with a scientifically sound approach and to help risk assessment and risk management activities in Europe for the years to come.
AMIGA Consortium has established from the very beginning an open dialogue with all different stakeholders using several communication channels. A permanent Stakeholder Consultation Platform has been established, through which the EFSA, Member States, EuropaBio, farmers' associations, FAO, NGOs are informed and consulted on the status of the activities. Moreover, the communication program provides a constant information flow to journalists and the wider public via press releases, press conferences, newsletter and an updated project web site. The communication of scientific results to the larger public will likely improve the objectivity of the debate and will promote a transparent and unbiased science-based decision process.

List of Websites: