The pulp industry wants genetically modified trees with less lignin. The industry’s “solution” will make things worse.
By Chris Lang. Published in ILA 310, November 2007.
The pulp industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. One of the reasons for the pollution is that the industry relies overwhelmingly on wood as its source of raw material. Making clean white paper from wood is a dirty business. First the wood has to made into pulp. To do this, the wood is chipped, cooked under pressure, washed and then bleached. Toxic chemicals are used during the cooking process to remove lignin, the glue-like substance which holds wood cells together and makes trees strong. Any remaining lignin has to be bleached out of the pulp, because lignin causes paper to turn yellow. The word lignin comes from the latin “lignum” which means wood (particularly firewood). Up to 30 per cent of the dry weight of tree trunks is made up of lignin. Because of the expense of removing lignin from wood, the pulp and paper industry has long dreamed of planting trees genetically modified to have less lignin.
But the risks associated with low-lignin GM trees massively outweigh the potential benefits. As with the introduction of any new technology, there will be winners and losers with the introduction of GM trees. While the pulp industry may benefit, the impacts on forests and local communities would be severe. The impacts of GM tree plantations on local communities and their environments would be similar to those of the large-scale industrial tree plantations that have already been established in many countries in the Global South. These plantations have taken over farmland, dried up streams and led to pollution through overuse of fertilizer and pesticides. GM trees engineered for faster growth as well as reduce lignin would make these problems worse.
The experience of GMOs in agriculture crops shows that once planted commercially, genetically modified genes will spread in the environment. With genetically modified trees, GM contamination is even more likely than with crops, because trees are longer lived and produce large amounts of pollen and seeds. If low-lignin GM trees were to cross with forest trees this would have a serious impact on the forest ecosystem. Trees with lower lignin are weaker and more at risk to storms. Reduced-lignin trees are more susceptible to viral infections and pest attacks. Once they die and start to decompose, trees with less lignin would rot more quickly, with impacts on soil structure and forest ecology. While forestry scientists may be able to come up with answers to the problems associated with low-lignin trees in plantations (such as spraying more pesticides), such technofixes will be impossible once the genes escape into natural forests. Forest ecosystems are complex and poorly understood. Forests are changing as a result of climate change. The impact of genetic contamination in forests is simply unknown. We do know, however, that once genetically modified genes have escaped into forest ecosystems there is simply no way of recalling the genes to the laboratory. Scientists admit that such “outcrossing” is a risk. In a 2003 article in the Plant Biotechnology Journal, forestry scientists (who are all proponents of research into GM trees) state: “Because most [plantation] trees have an abundance of wild or feral relatives, outcross, and display long-distance gene flow via pollen and sometimes seed, there is likely to be considerable activist and public concern about large-scale use of genetically engineered trees.”
China is the only country in which GM trees have been planted commercially. For the last five years, GM pest resistant poplars have been planted as part of a huge tree-planting drive in China. In 2005, the China Daily reported reported Lu Mengzhu, a chief scientist at the Chinese Academy of Forestry as saying, “Under harsh natural conditions – dry weather and arid land – of northern China where researchers chose to grow the transgenic poplars, the trees stand little chance of reproducing or ‘contaminating’ natural forests.” A total area of just over 200 hectares had been planted by 2005, according to the newspaper. But in a 2004 report for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, another scientist at the Chinese Academy of Forestry in Beijing, Huoran Wang, clearly states the risks involved. “Poplar trees are so widely planted in northern China that pollen and seed dispersal can not be prevented,” Wang writes. He adds that maintaining “isolation distances” between GM and non-GM poplars is “almost impossible”. Scientists’ solution to the problems of GM trees contaminating (and possibly destroying) other trees and native forests is another technofix – trees modified not to produce flowers. However, as with all technofixes, this one produces its own series of problems. Industrial tree plantations of sterile GM trees would be an environmental disaster. Thousands of hectares of trees without flowers, pollen or seeds would provide no food for birds or insects. The biodiversity of such plantations would be even lower than that of today’s monoculture tree plantations. A second problem is the difficulty of producing sterile GM trees. It is impossible to predict what might happen over the life of a tree. Genes can be unpredictably switched on or off, for example as a result of drought or extremes of heat or cold. The changing climate makes such events even more difficult to predict. The only way of knowing that trees modified to be sterile really are sterile for their entire lifespan is by conducting a series of trials lasting the hundreds of years of a trees lifespan. Obviously, no pulp and paper corporation would be prepared to wait for the final results of the experiments.
While China has won the race to release GM trees commercially, other countries are not far behind. The US-based company ArborGen is the world’s biggest GM tree research company. In 2005, ArborGen started open air trials of reduced lignin GM trees in Brazil. Earlier this year, the company gained approval from the Brazilian authorities for a second full-rotation field trial of GM eucalyptus trees. ArborGen is a joint venture between two US pulp and paper companies MeadWestvaco and International Paper, and New Zealand based Rubicon Limited. ArborGen aims to be “the pre-eminent player in the global development and marketing of bio-engineered trees to the forestry industry.” In August 2007, the company’s aim came a step closer to reality when it signed a US$60 million deal to take over the tree nursery operations of its three owners. If the deal goes through, ArborGen will become the world’s biggest producer of tree seedlings, selling 350 million seedlings a year. When ArborGen starts selling its GM trees it will have a huge ready market for its dangerous new technology. ArborGen does not yet have permission to sell its GM trees in Brazil. ArborGen is working in partnership with “some of the largest forest product companies in the region,” according to the forestry industry website RISI. Whether GM trees make economic sense is not clear. Some pulp mills produce lignin as a by-product of the pulping process. Pulp mills use lignin as a fuel source, meaning they may end up having to buy more electricity.
The patents involved in the scientific research will make GM trees more expensive. Because there are only a small number of companies that can produce GM trees, if GM trees were to become popular, the forestry sector would become dependent on a small number of biotechnology and GM seed companies. Forestry scientists focus on genetically modifying trees for reduced lignin because that is what they are employed to do. By keeping the focus narrow, on reducing lignin in order to reduce pollution from pulp mills, they avoid asking awkward questions about the structure of the pulp and paper industry for which they are working. The choose not to look at the impacts of industrial tree plantations on local communities. They overlook possible solutions, such as using crops like hemp which have lower levels of lignin than trees. They avoid asking questions about the massive overconsumption of paper in the North. And they avoid addressing the fact that most of the companies carrying out research into GM trees are based in the North, while most of the GM tree plantations, and the risks associated with them, will be in the South. Instead, forestry scientists are asking whether genetically engineering trees for reduced lignin will work. GM low-lignin trees will provide no benefits for communities living near industrial tree plantations.
The pulp industry’s dangerous “solution” will make things worse.