ISIS Report 01/03/05
GM Trees Lost in Chinas Forests
GM poplars released and unregulated are hard to trace, GM trees are a
potential ecological disaster and should be banned.
Sources for this article
are posted on ISIS members website.
One million GM trees
Fifty years of relentless development has forced Chinas forests
into retreat. Inevitable environmental consequences such as desertification and
flash floods have resulted in China becoming a net importer of wood. The Great
Green Wall project (2001) sponsored by the Government aims at planting a
2800-mile long shelterbelt of trees across the northwest rim skirting the Gobi
desert. This is intended to combat sandstorms blowing closer to Beijing, at a
cost of 96.2b yen.
Over one million GM trees have been planted in "reforestation"
initiatives since commercialisation was approved by The Chinese State Forestry
Administration in 2002. In the northwest regions of Xinjiang province 8 000
square kilometres of farmlands are given over to GM tree mono-plantations. A
further 400 000 GM poplars planted around the headlands of the Yellow and
Yangtze Rivers continue to be plagued by insect pests although they are
engineered to be pest resistant. GM trees introduced into the environment
without any proper controls have subsequently been "lost" to monitoring.
Wang Huoron from the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the UN Food and
Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2003 that the GM poplars "are so widely
planted in China that pollen and seed dispersal cannot be prevented." He also
reported to the FAO that without any licensing system and exchanges between
nurseries of traditional and GM plant varieties has made it "extremely
difficult to trace" the location of GM trees.
Poplars, whether GM or non-GM, are susceptible to pathogens and the
more varieties of poplars introduced into forests, the greater the risk of
pathogens. Leaf rust is the most significant disease of poplars worldwide.
Yousry-El-Kassaby, a forest geneticist at the University of British Columbia
response to Chinas rapid reforestation projects was cautious, he said
"Instead of going through the more labourious process of traditional breeding
for disease and pest resistances, these quick fix, single-gene technologies are
really attractive, in the same way they are for [GM] crops."
The Chinese State Forestry Bureau effectively has no licensing system
over GM trees and The Department of Agriculture is powerless to control GM
trees because they are not classified as crops. According to the Nanjing
Institute of Environmental Sciences there is an urgent need for communication
between the two government departments as genes from GM poplars have
transferred to nearby natural trees.
Transgenic poplars cross with native species
Professor Steve Strauss leads a scientific research team from Oregon
University that generally support GM technology, but acknowledges that GM
poplars can readily cross with wild trees that grow near poplar plantations and
that their potential environmental impact "is large because of their extensive
dispersal of pollen and seeds." The team found a further seven areas that
needed to improve the overall scientific risk assessment of GM trees, but
considered none of the knowledge gaps too wide that they should preclude common
use. However this conclusion presumed that reasonable research and monitoring
are done as part of commercialisation, clearly not the case in China.
Poplars are almost exclusively dioecious (separate male and female
trees) and obliged to outcross in order to reproduce. Reproduction begins when
the trees are very large, between 4-15 years of age, when long distance gene
dispersal of both pollen and seeds is possible. Poplar seeds are embedded in a
cotton-like matrix that enables floatation on wind and water. The seeds are
small and soon lose viability; so they must find sites with both sunlight and
water quickly in order to survive. Poplars do not produce seeds banks and are
intolerant of shady habitats.
Once a young poplar has established in a safe site, it can persist in
the environment for a remarkable period of time. The life span of a single
poplar is between 50-300 years. They are also capable of vegetative
reproduction and can vigorously sprout from stumps of "dead" trees once they
have been cut or fallen down from natural causes. In addition, tissues from
cottonwoods such as boles, branches and shorts can break off and float down
rivers or streams and establish new trees. Aspens are particularly vigorous
root sprouters, enabling clones to spread widely over the course of many
Poplars (Populus nigra), aspens (Populus tremloides) and
cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) have been transformed with
Agrobacterium plasmid vector delivering synthetic copies of the genes
for Bt toxins (from soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis) Cry3a and
Transgenic poplars are considered to be of "zero-low risk" by the
Chinese regulatory system, rather too rashly (see "GM forest trees the ultimate
threat" this series).
GM trees benefit industry not the environment
GM trees are engineered to grow faster than native counterparts and
produce up to 50% less lignin, which is the substance of wood (see "GM trees
). Removing lignin makes the tree less fibrous and cheaper to pulp for
industry. But it also reduces the trees fitness in the environment and
leads to decreased biomass and degraded biodiversity. (See "Low lignin in GM
trees and forest crops" http://www.i-sis.org.uk/LLGMT.php)
Genetic modifications like reduced lignin may also weaken the trees
capacity to withstand high winds and flooding, negating explicit reasons for GM
trees planted in China as a buffer against environmental forces. A four-year GM
tree trial by agribusiness Syngenta established that reducing lignin increased
growth rates, but failed to investigate ecological impacts.
So far, nearly two-thirds of research on GM trees for forests has taken
place in the USA according to UN FAO statistics. Experiments have taken place
on restricted test sites only, with the exception of the orchard papaya,
engineered to resist the insect-borne ringspot virus, which was engineered and
released by the University of Hawaii and contaminated non-GM seeds stocks,
organic farms, backyard gardens and wild trees across the country. (See "GM
battles rage worldwide", SIS 24).
Forestry is a global growth industry and corporations are keen to be
involved in research on GM trees directly as well as sponsoring public sector
research. International Paper (a partner in ArborGen, the worlds largest
GM tree company) and the biggest producers of papers and packaging, Westvaco,
(a US company owning 1.5 million acres of industrial tree plantations in the US
and Brazil) and Monsanto support research on GM trees at Oregano and Washington
Universities. Not one of these projects involves recycling paper or reducing
the use of paper for packaged products.
GM trees not the answer
In Brazil local communities have been evicted to make way for large
plantations of GM eucalyptus. Native forests known as the "cerrado" in the
state of Minas Gerais were ripped out and replaced by mono-plantations. The
"Genolyptus" project is thirteen companies working with Brazils Ministry
for Science and Technology to improve "pulping characteristics of Eucalyptus
destined for Brazilian markets". Owners include International Paper, Suzano,
and The Plantar Group presented with The Treetanic Award (like Titanic) for the
worst carbon sink project at the COP9 conference in Milan 2003.
The World Rainforest Movement report on the eucalyptus plantations in
Brazil and Thailand set out the impacts as follows; evictions and appropriation
of lands, depletion and contamination of water and soils, deforestation,
destruction of biodiversity, net loss of jobs, bad working conditions, loss of
livelihood and risks to health.
This years Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai is monitoring
genetically enhanced eucalyptus in Kenya planted by The International Service
for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), "Tree Biotechnology
Project." Faster growing eucalyptus cause streams and ponds to dry up and the
water table to drop, and are called "munyua maai" translating as "drinker of
water." She said, where introduced species replaced indigenous forest,
"farmland has lost water and certain crops like bananas, sugarcane, and local
species of arrow root no longer thrive on the drier farmlands to give food
security to local communities." A threat to GM eucalyptus is Blue Gum Chalcid,
a tiny black insect which The Kenya Foresty Research Institute reported as
worst affecting trees produced through biotechnology. ISAAA funded by Monsanto,
Bayer and Syngenta amongst others denies that the eucalyptus trees in Kenya are
Further question marks over the integrity of GM trees and
mono-plantations are raised over the killing of a 17 years old tree protestor
in Mapuche, Chile. The boy was shot dead by a security officer who had no
charges brought against him. Four other indigenous activists were sentenced to
ten years in jail apiece for protecting their medicinal herbs, water, land and
animals that are either lost or contaminated by the fumigation of plantation
Global ban needed on GM trees
The WWFs report GM Technology in the Forest Sector warns of
risk of genetic pollution and superweeds and calls for a global moratorium on
commercial GM tree plantations. The WWF report points out that the
commercialisation of GM trees is driven by the private sector and
multi-nationals investors who take advantage of the lack of controls in
developing countries. Other countries undertaking GM field trials include
Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, and South Africa.
In the United States 124 field tests of genetically altered trees had been
authorized, including transgenic spruce, pine, poplar, walnut, citrus, cherry,
apple, pear, plum, papaya, and persimmon.
GM trees engineered with Agrobacterium are considered to be
"transgenic elite clones" by the biotech industry, which require limited field
testing for commercial growth and "can be rapidly deployed without further
breeding to stabilise transgenic traits." Hectares of herbicide tolerant GM
monocrops flanked by herbicide tolerant GM trees that can be sprayed side by
side with company herbicide defines biotech attitudes towards sustainability
Dietrich Ewald, a German scientist from the Institute for Forest
Genetics and Forest Tree Breeding in Waldsieverdorf, travelled to China to
visit a GM poplar plantation 60 km north of Beijing, where he noted that there
was nothing growing between the regimented rows of trees, only dry, barren
soil. His photos labelled "No ground vegetation" show the stark contrast
between the plantations and biodiverse forests.
The Canadian Forest Service, a sector of The Natural Resources of
Canada, is conducting field-testing of GM poplar, GM white spruce and GM black
spruce. More than one million white spruce seedlings stemming from a few seeds
were distributed across Canada during the year 2000 as "Millenium trees." The
test forests are very large and experiments using "environmentally friendly
controls such as Bt" go on for about five years at a time. The tests are done
at The Laurentian Forestry Centre in the suburbs of Quebec City, where
scientists have recently applied for joint patent applications on GM eastern
white pine, GM western white pine, and GM conifers.
The Forest Forum in Finland, comprising the Union of Ecoforestry,
Peoples Biosafety Association and Friends of the Earth Finland, are campaigning
to ban GM trees on the principle that they contravene the Cartagena Protocol on
Biosafety, (See "No to GM trees",
They are conducting an on-line conference in which critical scientists,
environmental justice movements, farmers, indigenous people, gardeners and
forest owners discuss strategies for local and global resistance to GM trees.
The Forest Forum are also preparing for the UN Forum on Forests in New York in
May and the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to
the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (COP/MOP-2) and the Convention of
Biological Diversity in Montreal, June 2005. Concerned individuals and
organisations can join the various groups at workshops in New York and Montreal
to press for a global ban on GM trees.
To participate in the on-line conference between
14th-28th February contact
Hannes Tuohiniitty, People´s Biosafety Association e-mail
To participate in COP/MOP 2 in Montreal, June 2005, contact Hannu
campaign coordinator The Union of Ecoforestry in Finland
Note: GM Test sites located in Quebec City and Sainte-Foy are about two-
three hours from Montreal and would be worth a visit for those attending the
COP/MOP2 meeting if government allows.