According to the EU Directive 90/220, genetically modified plants must undergo a risk assessment before they are to be released. The criteria only take account of direct effects of the plant and its new properties.
To make a broader based assessment, experience with conventionally bred plants using the OECD "concept of familiarity" must be included. To investigate the degree to which the EU catalogue of criteria allowed prediction of the possible ecological impact of the release of genetically modified plants, information on the observed ecological effects of the cultivation of conventionally bred plant species (corn, wheat, potatoes, rape, sunflowers, topinambour, apples, carrots, cock's-foot, black locust, spruce) was obtained through interviews with experts and literature searches.
In a second phase an attempt was made to find a link between the observed effects and the plant properties. These relationships could, however, only be established to a limited extent, and only if the time period and area under consideration were limited. The primary effects through plant properties and secondary effects through farming practices appeared to be largely interdependent. The effects of gene transfer and naturalisation, a main focus when assessing the risk of genetically modified plants, appeared, however, to be important more in theoretical than in practical terms. Three examples were selected and assessed using the EU Directive criteria. Recommendations concerning (pending) modifications to the EU criteria included the addition of a question on possible farming practice.
The project, commissioned by the Federal Environment Agency and executed in collaboration with the Seibersdorf Research Centre and the Austrian Ecology Institute, began in November 1994. The final report was published as a Federal Environment Agency monograph.