ISIS Report 30/05/06
UN Convention Recognises GM Tree Threat
Why there should be a moratorium on GM trees Sam
A fully referenced
version of this article is posted on ISIS members’ website. Details here
The threat of GM trees recognised
The Convention on Biological
Diversity (CBD) passed a formal declaration at its Eighth Conference of the
Parties (COP-8) in Curitiba, Brazil on 31 March 2006 to recognize the threats
posed by genetically modified
(GM) (same as genetically
engineered (GE)) trees, and urging all countries to approach the technology
with caution .
This important declaration
came in support of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) call for an international framework
to assess the safety of GM trees in 2005 . Many groups are hoping that
the UN involvement will finally address the environmental and socio-economic
impact of GM trees on global forest diversity, and on local
and indigenous communities.
Pierre Sigaud, FAO expert in forest genetics, warned against rushing
to commercialise GM trees
before conducting environmental risk assessments in accordance with national
and international biosafety protocols. He said, “The issue goes beyond country
level since pollen flow and seed dispersal do not take account of national
boundaries and wood is a global commodity.” To counteract the contamination
of native stands by GMtrees, a robust framework to
govern research and application is essential, Sigaud added.
Moratorium backed by developing countries
The increasing use of biotechnology in the forestry sector has led to
the spread of GM treeplanting in at least thirty-five
countries. According to the FAO, mostresearch is confined to the laboratories, but
many millions of GM trees
have already been released in open field trials in China, North America, Australia,
Europe, and India,
and to a lesser extent, South America and Africa .
Nine developing countries supported calls for a moratorium on GM trees proposed
by government representatives of Iran and Ghana . Among these countries
are Ecuador, Egypt, Philippines, Rwanda, Senegal and Madagascar, and Malawi,
some of whom are home to the richest, most biodiverse forests on Earth. The
motion was opposed only by Canada and Australia, both governments having vested
interests in biotechnology. But they too agreed that a detailed investigation
into the impact of GM trees is needed.
Contamination from GM pollen drift
The latest evidence suggests that pollen
can travel up to 1 200 km in North America.
Concerns about contamination from GM pollen and seed drift, and the impact
on local/indigenous communities are shared by many forestry experts and civil
society organisations around the world, such as the World Rainforest Movement,
the Union of Ecoforesty, the Global Justice Ecology Project, Via Campesina,
the Independent Science Panel (see “Save our Forests” series SIS
26) and the International
Forum on Biodiversity.
Delegates from these organisationshad lobbied hard at international meetings
leading up to the latest CBD declaration, which is part of a wider commitment
to a road map that significantly reduces the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010,
in line with the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD).
Women destroy GM seedlings
Feelings are running high in developing countries.
On 8 March 2006, 2 000 Brazilian women destroyed
an estimated eight million low-lignin eucalyptus seedlings destined for plantations
and the greenhouse of the world’s largest pulp producer, Aracruz Cellulose.
Another company ArborGen has targeted Brazil as an important site to develop
huge plantations of GM eucalyptus, and International Paper owns 200 000 hectares
The Brazilian Network Against the Green Desert and their partner the Latin
American Network Against Monoculture Tree Plantations have designated 21 September
as National Tree Day since 2004 in support of rural communities that have been
displaced, destroyed or exploited by monoculture plantations.
In Chile, around one hundred indigenous Mapuche
Indians face trial and imprisonment, due to their actions against forestry
Too little, too late?
The UN interventions may be too late, but better late than never! In 2002,
China became the first country to release GM trees commercially (See “GM trees
lost in China’s forests” SiS
25). The Chinese
State Forestry Bureau is unable to trace the 1.4 million GM poplars (Populus
nigra) planted so far.
Nine smaller field trials
are underway with Poplar –12 and Poplar –741, engineered with a Bt toxin (from soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis) to be pest resistant. There is sufficient
evidence to argue that engineered sterility cannot contain the spread of GE
material  and that Bt toxin cause allergic reactions in humans and non-target
pests and that Bt toxin cause allergic reactions in humans and non-target
Plans to increase GM tree plantations in
China are being considered , and the Chinese delegation kept a low profile
at the CBD meeting in Brazil.
On the big Island of Hawaii, contamination of organic papaya stocks by GM papayas
is already at fifty percent . Organic produce needs to be restocked with
certified non-GM seeds.
Who leads in GM trees?
The US Department of Energy
was first to sequence the whole genome of the poplar tree. Three other GM
tree species dominate forestry biotechnology research: pine, eucalyptus, and spruce (Picea). These too have been widely planted
in open trials. Applications to field test GM trees in the US have risen by
over 70 percent in fifteen years.
ArborGen leads the research and development of GM trees. It states its primary
aim as a “commitment to sustainability” on the company’s website . It receives
funding from three corporate partners – International Paper, MeadWestvaco, and
Rubicon . This perspective of “sustainability” is clearly not something
that indigenous communities in Chile and Brazil are happy about.
A day of protest
will be held 8 May, 2006 outside International Paper’s headquarters highlighting
the dangers of GM trees (see “A silent forest”, this series) and to scrap
their research and development programme in time for their next annual shareholders
meeting in 2007.
Nanotech-engineered GM trees
The Institute of Paper Science and Technology collaborated with the US Department of Energy’s
Oak Ridge laboratory in their latest genetic engineering project that uses
carbon nanofibres to inject synthetic DNA into plant cells . Carbon nanofibres
and nanotubes are molecular scale
particles; one nanometre is a billionth of a metre; and one grain of sand is a million
This technique usesmillions of carbon nanofibres grown sticking out from silicon
chips, on which strands of DNA are attached. Living cells are then thrown against
them and pierced by the fibres, injecting DNA into the cells. Following this
process, the synthetic DNA can then express new proteins and traits.
There has been a rush to commercialise carbon nanotubes since their invention
in 1991, but very few safety assessments have been carried out until quite recently,
when they were found in laboratory experiments to be highly toxic, producing
inflammation of the lungs of mice . (See also “Nanotubes highly toxic”,
22; “Nanotoxicity a new discipline”, SiS
A Royal Society report in
conjunction with the Royal Academy of Engineers stated in July 2004 that there are uncertainties
about the potential effects on human health and the environment from manufactured
ultrafine nanoparticles if they are released . Professor Ann Dowling, who chaired
of the working group that produced the report, said of nanoparticles, “…it is vital that we determine both the positive
and negative effects they might have.”
Effects of nanofibres similar to asbestos
A 2004 EU Nanoforum report
likens the shapes of nanofibres to asbestos fibres, and by implication to the morbid effects of asbestos
on human health .
NASA study  reported inflammation of lungs to be more severe than in cases
of silicosis, a respiratory disease caused by breathing in silica dust.
A European Commission report chronicles the hazards of nanotechnology in detail
assisted by ISP toxicologist Dr Vyvyan Howard  (see also “Nanotox”, SiS
21 ). Mapping out Nano Risks, explicitly recommends that genetic
modification using nano-technology should be limited to microorganisms, “for
which containment is possible.”
Dr Richard Smalley, a Nobel
laureate and chairman of Carbon Nanotechnology Inc, has ignored these early
warnings and is adamant that his technique poses no threat to health .
He said, “We are confident there will prove out to be no heath hazards but
this [toxicology] work continues.”
Micropropagation produce clones
Researchers in India use “micropropagation” to clone plants from tiny
pieces of tissues . Micropropagation is a method of in vitro vegetative multiplication that bypasses
sexual reproduction and allows selected individuals to be precisely replicated
in vast numbers. The production of millions of identical genetically engineered
plants constitutes the largest area (34 percent) of experimental biotechnology
activities in forestry throughout sixty-four countries.
The ultimate goal of this research is to produce patented
manufactured seeds from clones of “model species” that will enable the quick
and easy global delivery of GM tree products.
Such cloned trees are genetically identical
and will be completely wiped out in case of disease or pests, as past experience
has demonstrated so clearly.
No future for GM trees
The FAO surveyed 65 countries involved in forest biotechtology, and their responsesgave undue emphasis to the perceived benefits and future of GM trees.
Of over four hundred questionnaires sent out, forty-nine responded, of which
twenty-three had conducted research on GM trees. Respondents felt that the
cost of GM tree trials,
intellectual property rights, and regulations were significant obstacles to
their future Consumer rejection and unease with GM products was also cited
The benefits of GM trees were perceived as providing easier pulping and reduced
use of chemicals for the timber industry, pest and disease resistance, phyto-remediation
of mercury in soil, secondary compounds to pharmaceuticals, and thepotential
to withstand extreme environmental conditions such as drought and heat. All
of these perceived benefits are not without problems and require many years
of careful biological and environmental assessment before commercialisation
could be justified (see box). Benefits to human health scored lowest of all.
Why not GM trees?
·Break with the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety
– the first international law to control transportation of Living Modified
Organisms (LMO’s) across national boundaries. And under the Forest Biological
Diversity Decision in Brazil 2006 UNEP/CBD/COP8/WG.1/L3
·Disrupt ecosystems and pose similar environmental,
health and economic risks as GM crops, but on a larger scale
and threaten natural biodiverse forests that are crucial to stabilising
climate and regulating rainfall
faster growing trees that speed up the return of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere
and use up much more water
used to phyto-remediate land actually re-locate soil mercury
from contaminated sites in the south and deposit them in the north. And
return expelled mercury to the soil in its original toxic state
synthetic genes and toxins to alter seed and flowering production posing
threats to human and animal health, as well as natural biodiversity
productivity for timber and pulp in monoculture plantations that destroy
natural habitats and rural communities which depend on native forests for
food and a multiplicity of other uses
fibrous content of trees (lignin) reduces strength, resistance to pests,
and disease. Increased lignin leads to a build-up of undigested plant material
in the soil.
Source: Save our Forests series, Science
in Society 2005,
26, p 14-24
The FAO’s proposed framework to assess the safety of GM trees therefore must
acknowledge the megadiversity of existing forests and theincreasing trend towards
recognizing the benefits of multiple uses of forests that preserves that diversity
(“Multiple uses of forests”, SiS
of the UN CBD to take a precautionary approach to GM trees is a helpful step
towards the proposed moratorium on GM trees.