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Synthesis/Regeneration 36   (Winter 2005)

The Plight of Forests

No to GM Trees

by Sam Burcher

Some 400 genetically modified (GM) birch trees (Betula pendula) in a single GM field study situated in Punkaharju, Finland have been either ripped up or cut down by unknown parties at an estimated cost of 1.21 million euros in June 2004.

After the attack, the researchers at Finnish Forest Research claimed that their purpose was to examine the environmental risks of horizontal gene transfer. When they originally applied for permission for the field trial in 2000, however, it was to study the carbon-nitrogen processes of GM trees.

Protests against GM trees greeted the 4th UN Forum on Forests (UNFF) in Geneva in May 2004 because of the “decision” to draft plans for GM tree projects made at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP9) in Milan in December 2003.

GM trees have been included in the Kyoto Protocol as a means of generating carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism. Carbon credits sold in this way are not subject to the traceability legislation that applies to all other GM imports into Europe and therefore countries hosting GM trees will have no way of knowing whether their credits are GM free or not.

The hopes pinned on GM trees include slowing the progress of climate change and ameliorating the effects of mercury vapors in the atmosphere caused by fossil fuels and medical waste burning.

The plan is to “phyto-remediate” land by planting GM trees that take up ionic mercury or organic mercury and convert it to less toxic elemental mercury, which can then be expelled into the atmosphere where it is supposed to become less harmful. But what this will achieve is to relocate soil mercury from contaminated soil sites in the south and redistribute the mercury to the north. Also, the mercury expelled to the atmosphere will go back to the land through precipitation, and convert to its original toxic state in the soil. This poses threats to animal and human health as well as problems of cross-contamination of native plants.

It is thought that reducing lignin in trees will make wood easier and cheaper to pulp and paper, especially soft woods, as well as creating faster growing trees. But a forest of slow-decaying trees is a major carbon sink whereas fast-decaying forests will result in carbon dioxide being returned to the atmosphere too rapidly.

…officials are expected to grant permission to grow GM trees commercially by 2005.

The US Department of Agriculture has issued more that 300 permits for open GM tree trials since 2000, and officials are expected to grant permission to grow GM trees commercially by 2005. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), GM tree trials are also taking place in China and Chile. In New Zealand, GM tree trials are underway by Aventis and DuPont, which have engineered pine trees (Pinus radiata) and Norwegian Spruce (Picea abies) to be resistant to their herbicides “Buster” and “Escort.” A second trial involves speeding up the growth of these GM tree species.

The introduction of “novel bio-engineered” trees into stocks of indigenous trees that “out- compete” the native populations will have a disrupting effect on ecosystems and poses similar risks as GM crops, on an increased scale. Problems with GM trees in the environment are amplified because trees engineered to contain pesticides have increased ability to harm non-target insects and birds as well as distributing pollen extensively. Tests have shown that pollen from pine trees can travel up to 600 km. Furthermore, trees remain in the environment for a lot longer than seasonal crops like maize.

… trees engineered to contain pesticides have increased ability to harm non-target insects and birds as well as distributing pollen extensively.

There is little evidence as to what GM trees may do to the soil, but they may absorb more nutrients than traditional trees, which further threatens biodiversity. And it is not yet know whether GM trees can withstand strong winds.

A campaign to ban GM trees was launched in January 2004 by Finnish Environmental Groups, the Peoples Biosafety Association and the Union of Ecoforestry. So far they have attracted support from many concerned groups: the World Rainforest Movement, Friends of the Earth International, I-SIS, the Forest Action Network and Scottish Green Party.

An open letter to governments was circulated on the last day of the UNFF by the Finnish Environmental Groups which stated that there is no control system for GM pollen flowing with the wind or seeds transported by birds, and that this “breaks with the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety,” the first international law to control the transportation of Living Modified Organisms across national borders.

Mikko Vartiainen, a lawyer specializing in international law on natural resources, confirmed that the burden of proof of safety should lie with the proponents of GM trees and that “We should follow a very tight precautionary principle with such risks.” The campaign delegation at Geneva has facilitated dialogue between government agents and NGOs and hopes to stimulate discussions between GM proponents and concerned scientists. But they argue that the “Decision” made at COP9 regarding GM trees should have been preceded by such dialogue.

American Lands Alliance, WWF and Greenpeace have all called for a moratorium on the release of GM trees. They suggest positive moves be made to “reduce the need” for fast growing trees that increase global demands for virgin wood and paper products along with further research and more regulations in place before GM trees are manufactured in the forests.

Hannu Hyvonen, the coordinator of the Union of Ecoforestry and an organic farmer, said that planting GM trees was not the answer to climate change prevention. “One cannot put out the fire with gasoline,” he said.

Sam Burcher is with the Institute for Science in Society, PO Box 32097, London NW1 OXR.

This article can be found on the I-SIS website at http://www.i-sis.org.uk/

[27 dec 04]

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