UN Logo 1Prime Minister Stephen Harper has uninvited Greenpeace and other environmental groups from participating as members of the Canadian delegation to a United Nations meeting on biodiversity.  Consequently, they will not be able to attend a meeting on Biodiversity and Biosecurity to be held in Rome February 18 to February 22.  Prior to Harper’s election in 2006, both environmental groups and provincial delegates have been invited to attend, while many other countries encourage participation from civil society organizations. The presence of environmental groups within this delegation is a crucial issue because many controversial current topics, including biofuels, Terminator technologies and genetically engineered trees will be on the agenda.

In 2006, the Canadian government spearheaded attempts to undermine a ban on genetically engineered Terminator crops, which are sterile after the first generation and prevent farmers from saving seeds.  Last year, Canada promoted dangerous experiments in genetically engineered trees, despite of warnings from the government’s own scientists that the spread of genetically engineered trees is impossible to control. Then again, as readers of this blog are aware, the Harper government is not inclined to listen to their own scientific experts, let alone independent environmental groups.

See Greenpeace's press release below for more information:

Montréal — Greenpeace has learned that, contrary to previous practice, the federal government will not invite environmental groups and the provinces to join its delegation at the Convention of Biological Diversity’s scientific meeting in Rome on 18 -22 February. Many controversial subjects, such as biofuels and genetically engineered trees, will be on the agenda.

"Canada will conduct its business behind closed doors in what we fear is an attempt to undermine the international community's efforts to protect biodiversity," says Éric Darier, coordinator of Greenpeace Canada's agriculture campaign and a delegate at the meeting.

Greenpeace anticipates that Canada will attempt to lift an international moratorium adopted by the United Nations in 2006 against "Terminator" sterilization techniques that prevent farmers from saving seeds. Canada, it is believed, would like to use GE trees to produce biofuels.

The thirteenth meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA 13) is being held in advance of the 4th meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (COP-MOP/4), which takes place on 12 - 16 May 2008 in Bonn, Germany. The federal government has not yet indicated if they will exclude the provinces and environmental groups from their delegation at this meeting as well.

For more information, please call: Jocelyn Desjardins, Media and Public Relations Officer, 514-212-5749

For more information about the threat of genetically engineered trees in Canada, see: http://www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/campaigns/ge/what-we-do/genetically-engineered-trees

The detrimental effects of genetically engineered crops on the environment are well known, but the potential for even greater harm is posed by GE trees, which because of their long lifespans and widespread propagation could be as great a danger as clearcutting.
But despite the severe warnings from scientists of the threat to wildlife, biodiversity and ecosystems, Canada continues to permit field tests of transgenetic forest trees. The fear is that these tests are just a prelude to the commercialization of GE trees, which could be catastrophic for the environment.

So far transgenic forest trees have only been marketed in China, but over 250 experimental releases of GE forest trees have been conducted worldwide. Canada has been field testing GE trees since 1997. The research is driven primarily by private business from developed nations, including some of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies.

Greenpeace is calling for a ban on the release of transgenic trees and, as an interim measure, recommends a global moratorium on commercial and large scale experimental releases. In a submission to the scientific body of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Greenpeace provides evidence of the significant ecological risks associated with transgenic forest trees, which are likely to prove unmanageable and irreversible.

One of the biggest threats is that GE forest trees will take over natural landscapes, irreversibly usurping the native vegetation upon which a whole array of other plants and animals depend.  Although they are largely intended to be grown on plantations, it is naïve (and irresponsible) to think GE trees will be confined there. Trees typically produce a very large number of seeds, and while most of these seeds are usually deposited in close vicinity, smaller amounts can spread across very large distances. Wind and water also can carry seeds and pollen from trees across great distances, while birds, bats, and small animals help trees to conquer distant habitats. In this way, conifer seeds can travel dozens of kilometres and the seeds from pine trees - one of the most widespread and invasive species as well as one of the species subject to GE research - can be carried up to 30 kilometres by the wind. In particular, trees that have been intentionally or even unintentionally altered with genes to improve their fitness could become more invasive, taking over new habitat and destroying biodiversity and disrupting ecosystems.

The corporate counter to this problem of uncontrollable propagation poses an even bigger risk. GE terminator trees, designed to be sterile would mean no birds, no insects and no mammals that rely on those seeds, pollen and nectar for food. The impact on forest biodiversity would be catastrophic.

Trees also propagate from shoots, and because they breed relatively easily with related species, they would inevitably pass on their genes to wild relatives and transfer their transgenes to micro-organisms.

A number of varieties of transgenic forest trees have been developed to resist insects, including two species of poplar which have been commercialised in China. Although there are no studies of their potential effects on non-target organisms, the fact that they can be affected is apparent from experiences with annual crop plants. Similar effects have also been observed in the soil. GE crops can affect the bacteria, earthworms and soil respiration Compared to annual crop plants, insect resistant trees offer scope for even more frightening scenarios. The leaves of GE trees planted along a river or the shore of a lake could easily enter the waterways with unforeseeable consequences for the aquatic life.

The other characteristic of forest trees that make them so vulnerable to genetic engineering is their long life spans. All sorts of unexpected changes could easily happen over the life time of a tree, some of which live hundreds of years. The longevity of trees also undermines the results of tests which cannot determine the  long-term affects. Ecological consequences may not be evident until after several years of growth

In addition to ecological impacts, transgenic plantations will also have social consequences. The technological and economic power associated with transgenic forestry is likely to parallel those experienced in agriculture. In that case the number of producers typically declines and a few large corporations control the production system. Ownership of gene technology will provide forestry corporations with even greater decision-making powers than today. Furthermore, being heavily mechanised and centralised, transgenic plantations will offer little in terms of local employment and profit. When commodities from natural forests and transgenic plantations compete, the latter could actively undermine wood prices and discourage incentives for natural forest management. As indigenous people are often the largest landowners of naturally managed forests, transgenic plantations could lead to a decline in the income of poor people. Moreover, given that the spread of transgenic seeds will be inevitable, the coexistence between transgenic tree plantations and less intensively managed public and private forestlands will pose new economic and liability problems, especially in landscapes made up of a mosaic of public forests, corporate timberlands, wildlife refuges and family timberlands.

In an attempt to warn the Canadian government of these very real risks, Greenpeace has submitted its report on GE trees to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency as it currently consulting about the latest round of field trials  that would take place in open air.