Forestry scientists argue that the only way to test GM trees is by planting them commercially. This is the precautionary principle in reverse.
By Chris Lang. Published in Robin Wood Magazine, August 2004.
Since its invention in 18th century Europe, scientific forestry has resulted in simplified forests and landscapes serving the needs of the timber industry. The vast monoculture industrial tree plantations marching across landscapes in the Global South are a product of this forestry science. Science’s latest offering to its industrial masters is genetically modified trees.
Industrial tree plantations are designed to produce only one product, such as fibre for the pulp and paper industry. The diversity of natural forests and locally managed landscapes is eliminated in the interests of the industry.
Local people’s names for industrial tree plantations illustrate the problems that this model of forestry causes. In Thailand, farmers call eucalyptus the “selfish tree”, because eucalyptus plantations remove so many nutrients from the soil and consume so much water that they cannot grow rice in neighbouring fields. Mapuche people in Chile refer to pine plantations as “planted soldiers”, because they are green, in rows and advancing. In Brazil, tree plantations are called a “green desert”, and in South Africa, “green cancer”.
Forestry scientists have now produced trees genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides and pesticides, to have lower levels of lignin (which makes trees easier to convert to pulp), to grow faster, to be resistant to disease, to survive in salty soils or to be sterile.
This technology will not provide any benefits to local communities living near to industrial plantations. Instead they promise to multiply the impacts.
Faster growing trees would consume even more water and nutrients from the soil causing rivers and streams to dry up. Trees resistant to herbicides and pesticides could become weedy and invade natural forests. Trees with lower levels of lignin are weaker structurally and less resistant to pests. Plantations of sterile trees offer the prospect of huge areas of trees without flowers, pollen, nuts or seeds. No birds or insects could live in such a plantation and the biodiversity would be even lower than that of today’s industrial tree plantations.
According to the precautionary principle, scientists should take precautionary measures to prevent their activities from threatening harm to human health or the environment. Scientists, rather than the public, have the responsibility to prove that their proposed activity is safe.
Yet forestry scientists argue that the only way to find out whether their new GM tree technology is safe is by trying it out commercially. Steven Strauss of the Department of Forest Science at Oregon State University is one of the world’s leading proponents of GM trees. “As with other forms of novel breeding, the extent of testing needed will be determined empirically – via adaptive management – during early commercial applications,” Strauss wrote in 2002.
“Commercial applications” would involve planting millions of GM trees. Once GM trees from these plantations have crossed with forest trees, it will be too late. There will be no way of recalling the technology to the laboratory. This is the precautionary principle in reverse.
In December 2003, at a meeting in Milan, the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) decided to allow Northern companies and governments to set up plantations of GM trees in the South and claim “carbon credits” for the carbon temporarily stored in the trees.
Kyoto Protocol rules now state that countries receiving plantations of GM trees should “evaluate, in accordance with their national laws, potential risks associated with the use of genetically modified organisms by afforestation and reforestation project activities”. Once again, this is the precautionary principle in reverse.
People’s Forest Forum, a coalition of the People’s Biosafety Association, the Union of Ecoforestry and Friends of the Earth Finland, has launched a petition calling for a global ban on GM trees. The petition will be presented to the UNFCCC at the tenth conference of the parties in Buenos Aires in December.
People’s Forest Forum states: “The course taken in Milan was a wrong one. We do not need plantations of genetically modified tree clones on our planet. Plans like this are in direct contradiction to the terms of the Rio Convention on Biodiversity.”