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Transgenic Trees - The Last Threat

Transgenic Trees - The Last Threat

By Dr. Mae-Wan Ho - Prof. Joe Cummins

GM forest trees do not raise the same health concerns as genetically modified (GM) food crops. But, in reality, they pose a much greater threat than GM crops because they directly impact natural forests.

The last threat

GM forest trees do not raise the same health concerns as genetically modified (GM) food crops. But in reality, they pose a much greater threat than GM crops because they directly impact the natural forests that are essential for life on our planet.

Global status of GM trees


Most of the genetic modification of forest trees has been carried out with the transfer of DNA mediated by Agrobacterium; but the bombardment of particles with fixed DNA or "biolistic transformation" has also been used. Of the 205 applications allowed at the end of 2003, 73.5% originated in the USA, 23% in other OECD member countries (in particular Belgium, Canada, France, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden) and 3.5% elsewhere (Brazil, China, Chile, South Africa and Uruguay) [1]. Four characteristics are reported for 80% of permit applications: herbicide tolerance (32%), gene markers (27%), insect resistance (12%), and lignin modification (9%). Of the tree species involved, Populus, Pinus, Liquidambar (Sweet Gum Tree) and Eucalyptus account for 85% of the applications.

Despite the fact that commercial interest was low during the first ten years of the development of transgenic trees, it has grown gradually since the late 90s. At the end of 2003, 45% of the permits granted were for the industry and mainly for poplars. But so far there has been no concerted push for the commercialization of GM trees except in China, where more than a million transgenic trees have been planted in "reforestation" initiatives as a result of the approval of their commercialization granted by the State Administration. of Forestry of China in 2002.

Several companies, including Weyerhaeuser, Shell and Monsanto, involved in GM tree research, had dropped out of the studies because they were not economically attractive [2]. However, the decision taken in December 2003 at the Ninth Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Climate Change Convention to allow Northern companies and governments to establish transgenic tree plantations in the South under the "Mechanism of Clean Development "could be the stepping stone that GMO producers need to see transgenic trees economically attractive.

The increasing replacement of forests

Forest trees have a long life. Its root system is extensive and interacts with numerous species in the soil biota, which are crucial for recycling, storing and maintaining nutrients in the forest ecosystem. Above ground, trees provide shade, home, and food for indigenous communities and nearly 2 million species of insects, birds, mammals, other plants, epiphytes, fungi, and bacteria.

All human beings depend on forests in one way or another whether for clean water, habitat, food, medicinal plants, and as recreational and spiritual sanctuaries.

Most of them, especially tropical forests, are essential for the water cycle that carries rain to crops; and to regulate the temperature of the Earth, preventing some places from being very hot or very cold. Forests absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen; in that sense they are the "lungs" of the planet.

The replacement of forests by GM tree plantations will cause an ecological disaster for our planet, especially now that global warming is accelerating dramatically.

Transgenic trees condemn

GM trees are designed for huge monoculture plantations, but they pose a threat to biodiverse natural forest ecosystems. The names given by local communities to industrial plantations are revealing [2]. Eucalyptus is the "selfish tree" because its plantations remove nutrients from the soil and consume so much water that farmers cannot grow rice in the adjacent fields. The Mapuche of Chile refer to the pine plantations as "planted soldiers" because they are green, they are in line and they advance. In Brazil, tree plantations are "green deserts" and in South Africa they call them the "green cancer". Throughout the southern hemisphere organizations and networks are actively opposing industrial tree plantations on their lands. Transgenic trees will intensify the problems of industrial plantations and opposition from indigenous communities.

A joint report by the World Rainforest Movement (WRM) and Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) [2] notes that scientists claiming to "improve" trees through genetic modification are actually working to "improve the profitability of the companies "that finance their research. It also highlights:

"But from a biological perspective there is no improvement. Is a tree with less lignin better or worse than a normal one? It is clearly worse, given the resulting loss of structural support, which makes it susceptible to damage during windstorms. Resistance to a herbicide is an "advantage"? It is not, as it allows extensive spraying of herbicides that affect the soil and, at the same time, destroy local flora and wildlife forms. Is it a tree without flowers no fruits or seeds useful to living beings? This tree is not the food of myriad species of insects, birds and other species that depend on it. Is a tree with insecticidal properties an "improvement"? It is a very dangerous threat to many species of insects that are part of larger food chains. "

Transgenic trees violate international conventions

The WRM report points out that GMOs in general and transgenic trees in particular are a clear violation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which obliges governments to apply the precautionary principle for GMOs that can cause serious damage to biodiversity. GM trees also violate the spirit of the United Nations Forum on Forests, which was established to protect the world's forests.

Unfortunately, the inclusion of GM trees within the framework of the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol means that the Climate Change Convention not only supports the expansion of tree plantations, but also assumes GM tree plantations as better "sinks". carbon ".

The WRM, the FoE International and ECOTERRA Intl. Call on all governments, especially the Parties to the Climate Change Convention and its Kyoto Protocol, to prohibit the planting of transgenic trees. The campaign against GM trees was launched in January 2004 by the Biosafety Association of the Finnish Society and the Union of Ecosilviculture (see "No to GM trees", SiS 23).

Unavoidable and unavoidable transgenic contamination

Forest trees are tall, long-lived, and produce abundant pollen and seeds that can be transported far away. These trees also reproduce asexually by clones that disperse long distances from the mother plant, thus promoting greater transgenic contamination. In this way, contamination of native trees by GM trees is inevitable and unavoidable.


Low lignin GM trees increase the destruction of forests and life forms. Low lignin trees are more susceptible, not only to storm damage, but also to attack by insects, fungi and bacteria (see "Low lignin transgenic trees and forage crops", SiS 23).

The characteristic of reduced lignin spreading through native forests will make them susceptible to storms, pest attacks, and bacterial and fungal diseases. Populations of pest insects will also increase.

Although low-lignin GM tree plantations will benefit the paper industry, they will also destroy local ways of life, forcing communities to move to places where they will have to clear other forests in order to cultivate [2].

Forest plantations are often followed by the destruction of native forests. In Sumatra, for example, vast areas of forest were destroyed to feed pulp and paper mills; cleared areas were replaced by acacia plantations. The argument that planting faster-growing GM trees is "growing more wood on less land" is misleading. Producing more fiber for the paper industry will not change the demand for high-quality tropical fine woods for the construction industry. Furthermore, the demand for wood is not the only cause of deforestation; road construction, dams, monocultures (such as soybeans in Brazil or Argentina) or cattle ranching, mining and oil extraction also contribute to the destruction of native forests, and the planting of GM trees will do nothing to stop the destruction .

Fast-growing GM trees will consume more water than current industrial tree plantations, further draining the few remaining aquifers and impacting adjacent forests.

Most of the pulp produced in the South is exported to the North. Per capita paper consumption in Germany is 70% higher than in the US. Vietnam consumes on average 2% of the amount of paper consumed in the US, even though literacy levels in the US, Germany and Vietnam are almost identical [2]. About 40% of the paper is used for packaging, and 60% of the space used in American newspapers is for advertisements. According to Jukka Hamala, head of Stora Enso - the world's second largest paper, packaging and forest products company, with sales of around $ 12.4 billion in 2004 - the key driver for increased demand was increased advertisements and advertisements in newspapers and magazines. Therefore, increased paper consumption is neither necessary nor desirable.

Fast-growing GM trees exacerbate climate change.

The argument that planting transgenic trees can reverse climate change is also a fallacy. In 1993, the car manufacturer Toyota began its field trials with genetically modified trees to absorb more carbon. Unfortunately, as carbon uptake increased, so did water consumption.

Tree plantations are much less effective in sequestering carbon than native forest ecosystems. A native forest ecosystem is an effective carbon sink. Neo-tropical forests in Central and South America have been estimated to sequester at least one ton of carbon per hectare per year thanks to increased above-ground biomass (more carbon may be sequestered in the soil) . In contrast, the destruction of one hectare of forest emits 200 tons of carbon (see "Why Gaia needs tropical forests", Isis 23).

Fast-growing, low-lignin trees will also take root more easily, returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere more rapidly, exacerbating rather than slowing global warming.

Researchers used a NASA infrared thermal multispectral scanner to find out the energy content of experimental forests in Oregon in 1989 [3]. They found that an area cleared had a surface temperature of 51.8 ° C, that is, it was hotter than a nearby quarry, which registered 50.7 ° C. A fir plantation with mature trees registered 29.9 ° C, compared to 29.4 ° C for the natural fir forest; in contrast, the lowest temperature was 24.7 ° C and was recorded in a 400-year-old forest. The cooling effect of the natural forest ecosystem is not only important to alleviate global warming; it is also a significant indicator of sustainability [4].

Insecticidal GM trees destroy biodiversity

There is no doubt that insecticidal transgenic trees will kill many insects, both desired and unwanted species; that is, before pests develop resistance in about six to seven years, according to an estimate by Liu Xiaofeng of the Henan Department of Agriculture, a scientist who questions the GM cotton planted in China (see "The GM cotton fiasco in all the world ", SiS25). At that point, more insecticides will be used, especially as new classes of pests appear.

The greatest threat to biodiversity is the expansion of insecticidal characteristics into natural forests. Laboratory experiments have shown that Bt toxins produced in transgenic crops can harm beneficial predators that feed on pest insects, even when pests are not affected by the toxins [5]. A class of Bt toxins (Cry1A) was found to affect mice, butterflies, and other beneficial species. Another class (Cry3A) acts against insects of the order Coléoptera (beetles and weevils) [6], which includes some 28,600 species. Bt toxins are known to leave the roots and penetrate the soil potentially impacting biota. The reduction in insect populations will in turn impact the birds and mammals that feed on them.

Herbicide-tolerant GM trees produce green deserts

GM trees have been built to be tolerant of broad spectrum herbicides that kill any other plant. If this is not enough to believe how harmful they are, these substances also affect all kinds of animals including humans (see The Case of a Sustainable World Free of GMOs, ISP report www.indsp.org). Herbicide-tolerant GM tree plantations are truly green deserts and collateral damage to adjacent forests and crops due to herbicide spraying is inevitable as well as contamination of drinking water.

Glyphosate is the most frequent cause of complaints and poisonings in Britain. Disorders of various body functions have been reported after use at normal levels. It also doubled the risk of late miscarriage and the children of people exposed to glyphosate had elevated neurological behavioral defects. Roundup (the brand name for glyphosate produced by Monsanto) caused cell division dysfunction that could be linked to human cancer. It also caused the late development of the fetal skeleton in laboratory rats. It inhibits steroid synthesis and is genotoxic in mammals, fish, and toads. It is lethal and highly toxic to worms and earthworms.

Glufosinate ammonium is associated with neurological, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and hematological toxicity and birth defects in humans. It is toxic to butterflies, countless beneficial insects, clam larvae, oysters, and other aquatic invertebrates, as well as some freshwater fish such as rainbow trout. It also inhibits beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil, especially those that fix nitrogen.

Health hazards

The health hazards of GM trees are similar to those produced by other GM crops, but could be more intense. We will mention two of the most prominent. Agrobacterium, used as a vector to create many transgenic trees, is a soil bacterium that causes tumors in infected plants and is capable of transferring genes to human and animal cells (see "Common plant vector injects genes into human cells" http: / /www.i-sis.org.uk/Agrobacterium.php). Scientists have warned that Agrobacterium is extremely difficult to eradicate from newly created transgenic plants and, therefore, can serve as a potential vehicle for the unintended horizontal transfer of genes into soil bacteria and other species, including humans that enter in contact with transgenic crops. This danger is greatly increased with GM trees, especially due to their extensive root system. The rhizosphere - plant root system - is a known "hot spot" for horizontal gene transfer.

The potential that Agrobacterium has to mediate horizontal gene transfer, and the dangers resulting from the spread of antibiotic resistance markers; the creation of new bacteria and viruses that cause diseases such as cancer in animals including humans were reviewed in Chapter 11 of the ISP report (www.indsp.org).

Another health threat is Bt toxins and other transgenes, which could spread widely in the pollen of transgenic trees. All the Bt toxins used as transgenes, including those that confer tolerance to glyphosate, had similarities with known allergens and, therefore, can cause allergies (see "Are transgenic proteins allergens?" ISIS report 01/05/2005 http: //www.i-sis.org.uk/ATPA.php)

References
1. Lang C. Genetically Modified Trees The ultimate threat to forests.
World Rainforest Movement and Friends of the Earth, December 2004
http://www.wrm.org.uy/subjects/GMTrees/text.pdf
2. Van Frankenhuyzen K and Beardmore T. Current status and environmental
impact of transgenic forest trees. Can J For Res 2004, 1163-1180.
3. Luvall JC and Holbo HR. Measurements of short term thermal responses of
coniferous forest canopies using thermal scanner data. Remote Sensing and
the Environment 1989, 27, 1-10.
4. Ho MW. Are sustainable economic systems like organisms? In Evolution,
Development and Economics (P. Koslowski, ed.), Springer-Verlag, Berlin,
1998b.
5. Dutton A, Klein H, Romeis J and Bigler F. "Uptake of Bt-toxin by
herbivores feeding on transgenic maize and consequences for the predator
Chrysoperia carnea ", Ecological Entomology 2002, 27, 441-7.
6. Wu S-J, Koller CN, Miller DL, Bauer LS and Dean DH. Enhanced toxicity
of Bacillus thuringiensis Cry3A d-endotoxin in coleopterans by mutagenesis
in a receptor binding loop. FEBS Letters 2000, 473, 227-232.
7. Reviewed in Ho MW and Lim LC. The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World,
ISP Report, ISIS & TWN, London & Penang, 2003

* Dr. Maewan Ho is editor of Science in Society (SiS) journal and scientific advisor to the Third World Network. For more information on his work visit: www.i-sis.org.uk http://www.i-sis.org.uk

No right for pollution
Global ban on transgenic trees


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