Joint ventures of giant corporations created to carry out research in the tree biotechnology field are mushrooming as the global paper demand increases and tree plantations are regarded as possible carbon sinks by the Kyoto Protocol. Environmental groups -such as the recently formed GE-Free Forests (GEFF)- and representatives of the academic sector have already expressed their concern on the impacts of these "Terminator" or "Frankentrees" and this concern has even led to direct action (see WRM Bulletin 26).
The fact that the planet's trees are still so wild if compared to the more domesticated plants means that change in their genome can be radical and fast. The implication of genetic engineering in trees is worrying for different reasons. Geneticist Dr. Douda Bensasson, consultant to the Women's Environmental Network -one of the founding organisations of the GEFF coalition- considers that "GE crops need to be grown for several consecutive generations to study their stability, reliability and safety. Decades or even centuries pass before trees have grown for a few generations. This means that GE trees cannot be thoroughly tested before they are released. What is also worrying is that trees produce vast quantities of seeds and pollen which travel great distances." Pollen belonging to genetically engineered food plants has already been found far away from the crop site. For sure this can also happen with GE trees.
One of the developments of tree biotechnology that is also generating concern is that related to lignin levels reduction in wood. This chemical, that the paper industry is trying to remove for technical reasons, is the one that gives trees rigidity. Lignin is vital in the tree's defences against herbivores, making the plant harder to digest, so GE tree plantations will need added protection against such predators. Lignin also maintains the structure of dead and decaying trees, providing an essential habitat for the organisms that form the forest ecosystems.
But there are also political implications. "Genetic engineering intensifies patterns of industrial plantation forestry which are already driving thousands of people off the land in the South," says Larry Lohmann of The Corner House and member of the WRM. "By helping companies take one more step toward transforming land and forests into a biotic factory producing only one industrial good, GE is bound to undermine the ability of local people to use them as a source of food or the diverse other things they need to survive."
Nobody knows when these products will actually arrive to the market. The fact that one of the criteria for sustainable forestry used by the Forest Stewardship Council is that the use of genetically modified organisms shall be prohibited can be by now reassuring. Nevertheless, such criteria can change, especially taking into account the powerful interests that are behind tree biotechnology development. In the meantime, as states Kate Geary of GEFF, even though there are, as yet, no GE tree products on the shelves, we must make people aware of the threat that this technology poses on the planet's already embattled forests.
Source: Hugh Warwick, BBC Wildlife Magazine August 1999, Vol.17 No.8