Abstract of Meeting Paper

Society for Risk Analysis - Europe 1998 Annual Meeting

Empirical Case Studies: Potentials of Global Risks: Biological Risks. Martina Mund, University of Bayreuth, Lehrstuhl für Pflanzenökologie, Universitätsstrasse 30, 95447 Bayreuth, Germany

Biological risks are defined as risks that origin from living organisms or biological processes. In respect to the issue of global risks, we will focus on the following two cases:

1. the mass development of species, especially of human introduced species (invasive species, alien species), and

2. the release and commercialization of genetically engineered plants.

For a risk classification, the most important characteristics of species mass development are the high extent of damage, whereas the probability of this damage occurring is very variable. The probability of large damage caused by invasive species is low compared to the high rates of introduction by world-wide trade and traffic. But if an alien species has been established, the damage could be extremely high and irreversible.

Invasions can lead to severe disruptions of ecological communities and changes of ecosystem function and structure, and can strongly influence the genetic diversity of indigenous organisms. Invasions will reach global dimensions when common species spread out over lots of habitats and ecosystems, thus reducing local or global biodiversity.

Potential damage through the release and the commercialization of genetically engineered plants and perhaps an unintended spread of transgenic plants or engineered genes will depend on many factors: the biology of the plants, the respective ecosystem, the characteristics of the engineered gene(s) and their ecological relevance. The unintended spread of genetically engineered plants or foreign genes could lead, in the worst case, to imbalances of natural species interactions (e. g. competition) and to changes of ecosystems´ structure and function (e.g., losses of population or species diversity, changes in biogeochemical cycles). However, the probability of occurrence and the extent of damage are highly unknown and uncertain. We know too less about the complex interactions and too less about the behaviour of genetically engineered plants or genes in natural or semi-natural ecosystems.


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