Genetically engineered trees

Publication - March 31, 2008
Genetically engineered trees could be as great a danger to our environment as clearcutting because of their long lifespans and widespread propagation. But despite warnings from scientists, Canada continues to permit field tests of transgenic forest trees. The fear is that these tests are just a prelude to the commercialization of GE trees.

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 businesses 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.

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 GE trees are intended to be grown on plantations, it is naive (and irresponsible) to think they will remain confined.

Trees typically produce a large number of seeds, and while most of these seeds are usually deposited in close vicinity, smaller amounts can spread across great distances with the help of wind, water and animals. For example, 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.

The corporate answer to the problem of uncontrollable propagation poses an even bigger risk. GE terminator trees, designed to be sterile, would mean birds, insects and mammals could not rely on those seeds 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 microorganisms.

A number of varieties of transgenic forest trees have been developed to resist insects, including two species of poplar, which have been commercialized 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 as 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 lifespans. All sorts of unexpected changes could easily happen over the lifetime 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 effects. 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 mechanized and centralized, 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’s consulting on the latest round of field trials that