China: Genetically modified madness

27 Aug

China started commercial planting of GM trees in 2002. Since then, no one is even monitoring where the trees have been planted.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 85, August 2004.

Two years ago, China’s State Forestry Administration approved genetically modified (GM) poplar trees for commercial planting. Well over one million insect resistant GM poplars have now been planted in China.

Also two years ago, China launched the world’s largest tree planting project. By 2012 the government aims to have covered an area of 44 million hectares with trees.

Decades of deforestation have left China facing serious environmental problems, including droughts and deadly floods. Sandstorms from the Gobi Desert frequently turn the air in Beijing yellowish brown reducing visibility to a few metres. The desert is creeping relentlessly towards China’s capital city.

Although the government describes its tree planting as reforestation, most of the area planted will be monoculture tree plantations, including plantations of GM trees.

“The first step is to raise plantations using fast-growing species such as poplar and larch”, wrote Wang Lida, Han Yifan and Hu Jianjun of the Chinese Academy of Forestry in a recently published book (“Molecular Genetics and Breeding of Forest Trees” edited by Sandeep Kumar and Matthias Fladung).

However, insect damage in plantations in China is a serious problem. Rather than suggesting planting a mixture of trees which might not be so susceptible to insect damage, the three Chinese forestry scientists suggest a GM tree technical fix. “Recent research on insect-resistant forest tree breeding shows considerable promise,” they wrote.

Huoran Wang is a research professor at the Chinese Academy of Forestry in Beijing and is China’s representative on the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources. Last year Wang told the FAO Panel that one million insect resistant GM Populus nigra trees had been planted in China. A further 400,000 insect resistant GM hybrid poplar trees have also been planted, Wang added.

Regulation of genetically modified organisms in China is covered by the Biosafety Act for GMOs in Agriculture, adopted by the State Council in May 2001. Before GM trees can be planted an expert panel organised by the State Forestry Administration carries out a technical assessment. The National Committee for Biosafety of GMOs in Agriculture bases its decision whether to approve the GM trees for release on the panel’s report.

However, China has no regulations specifically covering GM trees. “Special regulations are in the pipeline,” according to Huoran Wang.

Forestry scientists at the Chinese Academy of Forestry started research into GM poplar trees in the late 1980s. From 1990 to 1995, they were helped by an FAO-run project which provided capacity building, technology transfer and laboratory support. The $1.8 million project was funded by the United Nations Development Project.

For more than ten years, the Federal Research Centre for Forestry and Forest Products at Waldsieversdorf in Germany has maintained close contact with Chinese forestry scientists working on GM trees. Hu Jianjun of the Chinese Academy of Forestry is currently based at the Research Centre in Waldsieversdorf.

In May 2004, Dietrich Ewald, a forestry scientist based at Waldsieversdorf, travelled to China to take a look at some of the GM tree plantations. One of his visits was to Huairou, a town about 60 kilometres north of Beijing. Ewald’s photographs of the 33 hectare GM poplar plantation at Huairou show row upon row of GM poplar trees.

Ewald labelled two of his photographs “No ground vegetation”. He’s right. There is absolutely nothing growing except trees. The soil looks hard, dry and barren. A more extreme example to illustrate the difference between plantations and forests is hard to imagine.

Another of Ewald’s photographs shows a handful of seeds from the GM poplars. “There is no possibility of these seeds spreading because of the dryness, the grazing (sheep) as well as the adjacent agriculture,” reads Ewald’s comment on the photograph.

Huoran Wang appears to disagree. “Poplar trees are so widely planted in northern China that pollen and seed dispersal can not be prevented,” Wang stated in his presentation at the FAO meeting last year. Attempts to prevent genetic pollution by maintaining “isolation distances” between GM and non-GM poplars is “almost impossible”, Wang added.

China’s forestry scientists, with international complicity, are setting up an uncontrolled, irreversible experiment. No one knows the exact area planted with GM trees in China. “It is very difficult to trace them,” Wang commented. Poplar trees can be very easily propagated and GM trees are moved from one nursery to another. A GM poplar tree looks much the same as any other poplar tree.

There isn’t even a system in place to monitor the GM plantations that have so far been planted. Wang suggests setting up a system “to monitor the situation of the GM plantations” and their impact on surrounding ecosystems. A better suggestion would be to stop this unscientific, dangerous experiment now.

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