The debate over genetically modified plants is moving beyond the fields and heating up under the forest canopy. Research on genetically engineered (GE) trees is well under way in many countries and GE trees may soon be a familiar presence in our forests. Orin Langelle and Anne Petermann of Global Justice Ecology have embarked on a campaign to stop GE tree research. According to Petermann, “GE trees are the greatest threat to the native forest since the chainsaw.”
Currently, genetic research on trees is largely focused on developing methods that will make growing, harvesting and processing trees and their fruits and nuts, more ‘efficient.’ Scientists are experimenting with increasing levels of BT (a naturally occurring pesticide) in trees, increasing trees’ resistance to herbicides, reducing levels of lignin (the substance which promotes rigidity) in trees, and making trees sterile. Each of these characteristics will have devastating consequences on the environment, says Petermann. “Biotechnology is so revolutionary that we know almost nothing about it…but so far everything has been one problem after another.” For example, trees with increased levels of BT are supposed to result in a decrease in sprayed pesticides, but the opposite has been the case.
Trees with increased levels of BT result in the ‘natural’ selection of insects that are more resistant to the BT pesticide. This, in turn, necessitates higher pesticide levels, which can inadvertently kill non-target species. In the film A Silent Forest: The Growing Threat, Genetically Engineered Trees, David Suzuki explains that the BT pesticide will also leach into the ecological cycle through the roots, leaves, flowers, and pollen. “A forest that kills insects would be catastrophic,” says Suzuki.
Scientists are also working on creating sterile GE trees to prevent pollination of native trees; however, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), it is nearly impossible to control gene flow through pollen and seed dispersal – even at a 95 percent success rate. As Petermann points out, “the sterilized trees are producing nothing, and the other 5% are still sending out tainted genes—it’s a lose-lose situation.” By bearing no flowers, fruit, or nuts, the sterile trees will offer little nourishment to the wildlife around them, and accidental contamination of native forests by the non-sterile – but genetically modified – trees will result in unforeseeable upsets to the ecological balance. For example, according to Greenpeace’s website, “reduced lignin could speed up the decomposition of trees, altering soil ecology, structure and fertility.”
The Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science has already found genes from the GE poplars in Xinjiang, China appearing in natural varieties, and researchers have found backyard and organic papaya trees in Thailand and Hawaii contaminated by pollen from nearby GE papaya plantations.
Despite the risks, the biotechnology industry is promoting genetic modification as a way to clean up the environment by addressing problems like climate change and soil contamination. Aziz Choudry, Board Member of Global Justice Ecology, says this is simply a public relations move meant to “make the insane palatable,” and will not work.
“They say that they can engineer trees to suck mercury [from the soil],” says Petermann, “but then the mercury is just displaced into the air.” As for global warming, GE trees could be engineered to take CO2 out of the air faster than normal trees, but GE plantations would replace native forestland, inhibiting biodiversity. “Studies done by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the World Resources Institute found that in tropical areas plantations at best sequester only 1/4 the carbon as native forests,” says Petermann. GE trees wouldn’t offset carbon emissions enough to make a serious impact on global warming, says Petermann. A better response to global warming, she says, would be to cut down on pollution.
On March 22nd, Langelle and Petermann attended the Convention on Biological Diversity in Brazil to seek a moratorium on the research and commercial use of GE trees. While they did not achieve an all-out ban, the UN did recommend that the precautionary approach be used with GE trees. The application of the precautionary principle would mean that GE technology must be proven safe and necessary before being used. Canada and the United States argued against the recommendation.
The United States has a large stake in biotechnology, with 150 test plots conducting over two thirds of the world’s GE tree research. The Canadian government has not yet released genetically modified trees into the commercial sector, but has been testing GE black spruce, white spruce, and poplar in greenhouses and outdoors since 1997, with test plots in Quebec, New Brunswick, British Columbia, and Alberta.
So far, the only commercial GE tree plantations are in China, which released BT poplar trees in 2001. A destructive cycle led to China’s GE forests, says Petermann. Initial deforestation in China led to desertification, leading to poplar plantations to curb the desertification. The poplar monoculture was vulnerable to insect infestation, so insect-resistant BT poplars were planted, which China did with the help of the UN Development Program and the FAO. “The accurate area of GM plantations cannot be assessed because of the ease of propagation and marketing of GM trees and the difficulty of morphologically distinguishing GM from non-GM trees,” says Huoran Wang of the Chinese Academy of Forestry, “a lot of materials are moved from one nursery to another and it is difficult to trace them.”
“It’s completely unregulated,” Langelle says. “People can buy these trees at any local nursery and plant them anywhere.”
“Chile sees itself as a model for industrial forestry in the world,” says Petermann, and may be next to commercialize GE trees. Genetic research is currently focused on the eucalyptus, which occupies a large portion of Chilean plantations. These plantations are already having devastating impacts on the environment and indigenous communities.
Plantations are water-intensive, which means they deplete groundwater, making it harder for other organisms and local communities to obtain water. The trees leach nutrients from the soil, reduce biodiversity and as monocultures, allow pests and diseases to flourish, requiring increased use of pesticides and herbicides. “Timber plantations are a scourge of the South,” says Langelle, and combined with GE technology, plantations could have even more destructive effects. As the Greenpeace website reports, research is being done to create faster-growing trees, which would exacerbate problems of nutrient depletion and groundwater loss already present in plantations.
Petermann and Langelle are continuing their drive for a worldwide ban of GE trees at the next UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2008. But Langelle’s expectations of the UN are minimal, noting that “the UN is not really a body that’s going to stop anything.” Nevertheless, he believes that “people have the power to stop this.”
Katie Shafley, The Dominion