Genetically modified trees cause memory loss

26 May

The United Nations Forum on Forests failed (once again) to discuss GM trees.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 82, May 2004.

Maybe it’s something in the water in Geneva that causes temporary memory loss. Or maybe it’s the coffee. Whatever, the participants at the fourth meeting of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF-4) held in Geneva in May seemed to be suffering from a form of collective amnesia.

Five months ago, the ninth Conference of the Parties (COP-9) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reached a decision that will promote industrial forestry projects and genetically modified (GM) tree plantations. COP-9 decided to allow the North to establish plantations, including GM tree plantations, in the South under the Kyoto Protocol’s “Clean Development Mechanism”. The plantations are supposed to absorb carbon dioxide and store carbon.

This decision has major implications for forests and people around the world. It effectively provides a subsidy to corporations and Northern governments encouraging them to take over huge tracts of land in the South and plant them with GM trees.

But delegates at the two week-long UNFF-4 were strangely reluctant to discuss the implications of this decision.

On the third day of the meeting, Henning Wuester of the UNFCCC talked for eleven minutes about COP-9. Wuester’s presentation was fascinating, if you are fascinated by superficial references to modalities, procedures, reporting of emissions and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, Wuester forgot to mention that COP-9 decided to include GM tree plantations in the Clean Development Mechanism. That the delegates to UNFF-4 might want to discuss some of the implications of this decision must have simply slipped his mind.

Not everyone at UNFF-4 forgot about GM trees. Some of us turned up specifically to talk about them. I had the pleasure of chairing a side event organised by Hannu Hyvönen of the Finnish Union of Ecoforestry. Hannu presented a petition to a representative of the UNFF Secretariat demanding that the UN bans GM trees. The petition was signed by more than 140 organisations and over 1,500 people.

Anne Petermann of the US-based Global Justice Ecology Project and Mikko Vartiainen from the People’s Biosafety Organisation in Finland joined Hannu on the panel. In his presentation, Hannu described how GM trees are the most recent and perhaps the most dangerous development of a model of industrial forestry that has had devastating impacts on the world’s forests. Anne described the risks associated with GM trees. If GM trees crossed with forest trees we would have “native forests that kill insects, ruin soil ecology, have no food for wildlife, distribute toxic pollen, exhaust the soil and deplete the ground water”, she said. Mikko explained how the introduction of GM trees contravenes the precautionary principle and is illegal under international law.

In the discussion following the presentations none of the 30 participants at the side event, including 12 government delegates, put forward any arguments in favour of continuing research into GM trees or establishing field trials of GM trees.

Macarthy Afolabi Oyebo from the Department of Forestry in Nigeria explained that the legislation that his government has put in place “makes it almost impossible to bring GMOs into the country”.

Another case of memory loss, I’m afraid. Oyebo must have forgotten that a three day meeting on “Facilitating Biotechnology in West Africa” took place in Nigeria the previous week. At the opening ceremony the Nigerian government signed an agreement with the US government aimed at promoting biotechnology and GM products in Nigeria.

The Times of Nigeria reported the agreement under the headline “Nigeria poised for biotech take-off”. The Times reported that Rick Roberts from the US Embassy “charged Nigeria to embrace biotechnology”.

Back at the UNFF-4 side event, Safiya Samman from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service commented that in the US, “We do have a regulatory body and assessments are carried out of any GM plants.”

The USDA is responsible for regulating biotechnology, through its Animal Plant Health Inspection Agency. However, as Anne Petermann pointed out, the regulatory system in the US leaves much to be desired.

US-based ArborGen is the world’s biggest forestry biotechnology company. The company currently has 51 field trials of GM poplar, eucalyptus, pine, sweetgum and cottonwood trees in the US. ArborGen’s scientists have genetically manipulated the trees to have less lignin, to grow faster, to be sterile or to be resistant to herbicide.

ArborGen was formed in 1999 by three huge timber companies (Fletcher Challenge Forests, International Paper and Westvaco) and a New Zealand-based biotechnology research company (Genesis Research and Development). In 2000, Rubicon took over Fletcher Challenge Forests’ involvement in the company.

ArborGen, according to a 1999 press release, aims “to position itself to market new advances in forestry biotechnology to the world’s tree growers in the shortest possible time”.

If ever there was a company that needed to be carefully regulated, ArborGen is it. Yet the USDA has only turned down one of ArborGen’s applications for GM tree field trials and that was on a technicality. ArborGen has not submitted an environmental impact assessment for any of its GM tree field trials.

Of course USDA’s Safiya Samman knew this. Sadly, in common with most of the delegates at UNFF-4 she was suffering from GM tree-induced amnesia and she just forgot to mention it.

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