Science in Society Archive

UN Convention Recognises GM Tree Threat

Why there should be a moratorium on GM trees. Sam Burcher

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 [1].

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 [2].  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 [3].

Nine developing countries supported calls for a moratorium on GM trees proposed by government representatives of Iran and Ghana [4].  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 in Brazil.

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 company plantations.

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)[5]. 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 [6] 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 pests [7].

Plans to increase GM tree plantations in China are being considered [8], 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 [9]. 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 [10]. It receives funding from three corporate partners – International Paper, MeadWestvaco, and Rubicon [11]. 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 [12]. Carbon nanofibres and nanotubes are molecular scale particles; one nanometre is a billionth of a metre; and one grain of sand is a million nanometres across.

 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 [13]. (See also “Nanotubes highly toxic”, SiS 22; “Nanotoxicity a new discipline”, SiS 28 [14]).

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 [15]. 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 [16].

A NASA study [17] 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 [18] (see also “Nanotox”, SiS 21 [19]). 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 [20]. 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 [3]. 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 as problems.

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

Replace and threaten natural biodiverse forests that are crucial to stabilising climate and regulating rainfall

Produce faster growing trees that speed up the return of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and use up much more water

When 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

Manipulate synthetic genes and toxins to alter seed and flowering production posing threats to human and animal health, as well as natural biodiversity

Increase 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

Less 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 25) [21].

The declaration of the UN CBD to take a precautionary approach to GM trees is a helpful step towards the proposed moratorium on GM trees.

Article first published 30/05/06


  1. GE trees sway under international scrutiny.  Press Release Global Justice Ecology Project. 1st April 2006
  2. James Njoroge. UN body urges caution over GM trees, July 22, 2005.
  3. Forest genetic resources working papers.  Preliminary review of biotechnology in forestry, use of genetic modification, FGR/59E, December 2004
  4. Harbinson R.  Panos at the CBD.  Ban GM trees, say forest-rich developing countries. 23 March 2006
  5. Burcher S.  GM trees lost in China’s forests. Science in Society, 2005, issue 26, p23-24.
  6. Ho MW and Cummins J. Chronicle of an ecological disaster foretold. Science in Society 2003, 18, 26-27.
  7. Ho M.W. More illnesses linked to Bt crops I-SIS press release 18th April 2006.
  8. More GE trees “no threat” to environment. China Daily 1 April 2005.
  9. Robinson C. Burcher S, Gala R.  GM battles rage Worldwide. Science in Society 2004, 26 14-15.
  11. Orin Langelle Call to action against genetically engineered trees. Frankentrees Mailing List. 19th April 2006
  12. GM plants use nanofibres. August 15 2005
  13. Lam C. W. James J.T, et al. Pulmonary toxicity of single walled nanotubes in mice, Toxilogical Science 2004, 77, 126-134.
  14. Ho MW. Nanotubes highly toxic. Science in Society 2004, 21, 37-37.
  15. The Royal Society report 29 July 2004
  16. Dangers come in small particles. Hazards Magazine July-Sept 2004, issue 87.
  17. op cite. Lam C. W. James J.T, et al. Pulmonary toxicity of single walled nanotubes in mice, Toxilogical Science 2004, 77, 126-134.
  18. European Commission, Nanotechnologies: A preliminary risk analysis on the basis of a workshop organised in Brussels on 1-2 March 2004 by the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General of the European Commission,
  19. Howard V. Nanotox. Science in Society 2004, 21, 34-35. http://www.i-sis.or
  20. Op cite. GM Plants Use Carbon Nanofibres press release August 15 2005 
  21. Ho MW. Multiple uses of forests. Science in Society, 2005 issue 26, p18-19.

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