Scary genetically modified trees

15 Nov

Presentation at TimberWatch Plantations Seminar: Durban, South Africa, 8 October 2004.

By Chris Lang, World Rainforest Movement.




Genetically modified trees pose the ultimate threat to the world’s forests. Unlike food crops, trees can live for hundreds of years. It is impossible to predict what might happen over the life of a tree, how it will be affected by extremes of heat or cold, for example. If GM trees were to cross with natural trees, invade natural ecosystems and their impacts were to become all too visible, it would be too late. There is no way of recalling them to the laboratory.

The first open air trial of GM poplars took place sixteen years ago in Belgium. Since then there have been several hundred field trials, most of them in the USA. All of these were experimental plots and the trees were destroyed at the end of the experiment.

However, two years ago, the Chinese government allowed the commercial release of GM trees. Well over one million insect resistant GM poplar trees have now been planted in China. Many of China’s GM trees are planted in experimental plots, but it is possible to buy GM trees from Chinese tree nurseries and to plant them anywhere in the country. Neither the Chinese government nor the forestry scientists who produced the trees have records of where the trees have been planted.

Huoran Wang, a forestry scientist at the Chinese Academy of Forestry in Beijing, explained the risks involved at a meeting organised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation last year. “Poplar trees are so widely planted in northern China that pollen and seed dispersal can not be prevented,” Wang explained. He added that maintaining “isolation distances” between GM and non-GM poplars is “almost impossible”.

Worldwide, forestry scientists are working to produce GM trees for a range of purposes, predominantly to suit the needs of the pulp and paper industry. Trees which grow faster are intended to provide fibre more quickly and cheaply for the pulp industry. Trees genetically modified to have less lignin are supposed to make pulp production less polluting. (As much lignin as possible is removed during the pulping process and any remaining lignin has to be bleached to prevent the paper produced from turning yellow.)

GM trees which are insect resistant or herbicide tolerant appear attractive to plantation managers looking to save the costs of spraying pesticide or herbicide. Slow growing trees, genetically modified to have denser wood are planned to absorb and store carbon.

But each of these GM developments carries its own risks. Faster growing trees would suck up more water and nutrients out of the soil. Trees with less lignin would be weaker, more susceptible to disease and easily damaged or destroyed in storms.

GM herbicide tolerant trees would be tolerant to large doses of herbicide. If plantation managers don’t need to worry about damaging trees during herbicide spraying this is likely to encourage more use of herbicides, rather than less. If herbicide tolerant trees were to become weedy and started to invade other ecosystems, a cocktail of poisons would be needed to kill them. Weedy exotic trees from plantations in South Africa have invaded huge areas outside plantations. Imagine trying to get rid of trees that are genetically designed to be resistant to herbicides.

Scientists are working on producing sterile GM trees in an attempt to prevent the problem of weediness in GM trees. But plantations of sterile GM trees without flowers, pollen, nuts or seeds would have even lower biodiversity than that of today’s industrial tree plantations.

GM trees with inserted genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) produce their own insecticide, killing insects which feed from the leaves of the tree. Insects are more likely to develop resistance to a pesticide that is always present. Plantation managers’ “solution” to pesticide resistant insects would be to spray a cocktail of yet more pesticides.

GM trees are the latest development of scientific forestry. Invented in Europe around 200 years ago, scientific forestry aims to redesign forests to suit the needs of the timber industry. The vast monoculture industrial tree plantations marching across landscapes in the South are perhaps the most extreme application of this forestry science. In the process local people have seen their farmland and forests converted to industrial tree monocultures.

Research into GM trees will not help local people. Instead, forestry scientists are responding to their industrial masters’ demands for more efficient plantations.

When faced with criticism of their research into GM trees, forestry scientists have a standard answer: The critic is not an expert and therefore is not really entitled to comment. The science behind GM research is fiendishly complicated. Scientific reports are often written in an technical, academic style which is simply incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t spent years wrapping their heads round the subject. Yet when asked about their work, some forestry scientists seem strangely reluctant to explain what they are doing.

Dr Malcolm Campbell is one of the world’s leading researchers into trees genetically modified for reduced lignin. He doesn’t understand what the fuss over GM trees is all about. Five years ago he told a newspaper reporter “I don’t get up in the morning and try to think about who I’m going to step on. I go to work trying to make the world a better place for my kids.”

I wrote to Campbell to ask him some questions about his research. He didn’t answer any of my questions, but he was keen to tell me that his family has not owned a car “as a matter of choice, for 8 years, and we do everything by public transport – including transporting my wife’s Fair Trade stall from site to site.”

I hadn’t asked Dr Campbell whether he takes the bus into work. I am, however, interested in what he does once he’s arrived at his laboratory. Among the questions which Campbell declined to answer was whether he has conducted any research into the impacts of industrial tree plantations on local communities in the South, and whether he has visited any local communities affected by plantations without representatives of the company responsible for the plantations.

Pulp and paper corporations are interested in Campbell’s research into GM trees because they believe it might help them increase their profits, not because they think it might improve the lives of local communities. Communities from India to Cambodia to Thailand to Indonesia to Brazil to Chile to Uruguay to South Africa are protesting the impact these companies are having on their lands and livelihoods.

I’ll end with some good news and some bad news, starting with the bad news. In December 2003, the pro-GM tree campaign won a major victory. At the ninth Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in Milan, governments 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.

Under the Kyoto Protocol’s “Clean Development Mechanism”, one ton of carbon released by burning coal or oil is considered to be the same as one ton of carbon contained in a tree plantation. In terms of the impact on the climate these are two different types of carbon which cannot be added to, or subtracted from, each other. Carbon stored in the form of fossil fuel under the earth is stable and unless corporations dig it out and burn it, it will not enter the atmosphere. Tree plantations store carbon in an unstable form. They can catch fire, be destroyed by pests, be logged or cut down by angry local communities in an attempt to reclaim their land.

While GM tree carbon sink plantations will do nothing to improve climate change they will provide a subsidy for planting GM trees in the South.

So that’s the bad news. The good news is that there is a growing network of people and organisations opposing GM trees. Several of us at this meeting will go to the next Kyoto Protocol Conference in Buenos Aires in December to protest the inclusion of carbon sink plantations and GM trees in the Kyoto Protocol.

Also in Buenos Aires, World Rainforest Movement and Friends of the Earth International will be launching a report on GM trees (the results of my research for the last year or so) and the Global Justice Ecology Project will be launching a video on GM trees.

In January this year a coalition of Finnish NGOs (People’s Biosafety Association, the Union of Ecoforestry and Friends of the Earth Finland) launched a petition calling for a global ban on GM trees. More than 2,000 people and more than 200 organisations have so far signed the petition.

The resistance to GM trees is growing!

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