Nature and the environment

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is composed of species and their habitats, ecosystems formed by different species and populations and the genes contained in the organisms. Genetic diversity forms the basis of variations between individuals and species and enables, among other things, species to adapt to changes in the environment.

How can biodiversity be protected?

Protection of genetic diversity is associated directly with the protection of species and ecosystems. Destruction of habitats means at the same time the loss of the genes contained in populations living in them. At worst, it leads to species extinction and the ultimate disappearance from the planet of the genetic material contained in these species.

Does biodiversity benefit from biotechnology?

Bio- and gene technology are utilised, among other things, in species identification, taxonomy and genetic diversity research. As knowledge increases, the possibilities to protect genetic diversity improve as well. The aim is to secure not only the genetic diversity of wild species but also that of livestock and crop plants through the establishment of gene banks and by breeding native breeds and indigenous plant species. The genetic resources important for Finnish agriculture and cultural heritage have adapted over millennia to the local climate, soil and landscape, which makes them unique. Sustainable use and protection of genetic resources secures the availability of diversity for the needs of farmers, breeders and research and the use of future generations.

It should be remembered that biotechnology utilises the functions of the vital systems of organisms, cells, parts of cells or molecules occurring in the cell which have become well-known though research in the fields of chemistry, biochemistry and genetics. Gene technology, for its part, is that subsection of modern biotechnology in which the method consists of modification and/or transfer of genetic material − in which case, the foreign DNA inserted into a cell is incorporated as part of the organism’s genome. Genetic information produced by means of gene technology can, of course, be used in applications (in the production of genetically modified crops, among others), but mainly the products of gene technology are used in basic research, for example, when studying the significance of a particular gene product for a plant. Biotechnological methods in themselves are increasingly used in traditional plant breeding too.

Do GMO plants reduce biodiversity?

With the help of gene technology, varieties that are resistant to certain non-selective herbicides have been developed. For certain crops, such as fodder and sugar beet, pesticide resistance reduces the total load of pesticides on the environment. However, the effects on biodiversity can be detrimental. An extensive four-year study (2000−2003) was carried out in the UK, which examined the effects of pesticide-resistant corn, spring and autumn oilseed rape and sugar beet on biodiversity. The study showed that the cultivation of both varieties of rapeseed and of sugar beet reduced diversity in the agricultural environmental and that the decline was due to change in the use of pesticides. In the cultivation areas of both varieties certain insects, especially butterflies and bees, declined. The potential impacts on biodiversity can be decreased by reducing the amount of spraying and by intensifying crop rotation.

Insect-resistant, so-called Bt varieties, have also been developed through gene technology. The cultivation of Bt varieties has been found to cause quantitative changes in butterflies, bees, beetles, hemipterans and spiders. Quantitative changes have been shown in groups of soil organisms. According to the current assessment, the quantitative changes do not show clear trends, rather they may vary according to the research subject. Therefore, Bt toxins are not, according to current data, considered to be harmful other than to the specific pest insects and their parasites, which are the target organisms.

Environmental biotechnology benefits diversity

Plants and microbes are also utilised in cleaning up a contaminated environment. The aim then is to create conditions conducive to the action of decomposer microbes by growing, for example plants belonging to the pulse family in the contaminated soil. Diversity can be increased by expanding crop variety. This method improves soil quality and binds the soil, thus reducing erosion. The method is suitable for landscaping. It is an inexpensive but slow alternative to transporting and treating soil material elsewhere by means of more intensive technology. Genetically modified organisms have not been introduced, rather the diversity of natural microbes is used in bioremediation.

In the EU, the authorisation of genetically modified organisms is prescribed by legislation and regulations. A risk assessment is carried out on all laboratory tests, field trials and products involving genetically modified organisms. Genetically modified organisms may not cause harm to human health or the environment.

In the area of environmental protection and improvement of environmental quality, biotechnology offers new opportunities, particularly in the protection of air, soil and water and in waste management. With the help of biotechnology, production methods that are more environmentally-friendly than before have been developed for industry and processes that use substantial amounts of environmentally harmful chemicals have been reduced. The raw materials used in industry, too, have changed to some extent. Completely new products are being developed from renewable raw materials to replace oil-based products.

Biotechnology as a research tool

With the aid of biotechnology we are beginning to understand plant function at the molecular level, and this is opening up new opportunities to prevent and control climate change by means of plants. All plants bind carbon from the atmosphere in photosynthesis, and thus play a key role in combating climate change. Plant health, vitality and adaptability to different areas and changing conditions can be improved through breeding for resistance.

Biotechnology can be used to breed desired traits, such as resistance to aridity, salinity, cold, heat, insects, pests or disease more accurately and faster.
An especially large amount of research is currently being conducted at genetic and molecular level to determine the regulatory molecules, message transmitters, and defence mechanisms relating to stresses.

Gene technology methods have provided a wealth of new information on the diversity of micro-organisms from the early stages of life on the planet to the existence of organisms yet to be discovered. The mapping of microbes in nature is based on the mapping of the entire base sequence of microbes isolated in the laboratory and on so-called metagenomics, i.e. the mapping of genetic material isolated from different biotopes. The new methods will provide useful information about the processes of nature, such as the cycles of substances, which again is essential in managing climate change.