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2-Plants: Monsanto and Shell promote Terminator trees

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TITLE:  Trees that never flower herald a silent spring
SOURCE: The Daily Telegraph, UK, by Oliver Tickell & Charles
DATE:   July 17, 1999

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Trees that never flower herald a silent spring
Oliver Tickell and Charles Clover report that GM forests will be
devoid of all animal and insect life

"TERMINATOR" trees, genetically engineered never to flower, could
ensure a silent spring in the forests of the future. Such trees
will grow faster than before, but will be devoid of the bees,
butterflies, moths, birds and squirrels which depend on pollen,
seed and nectar, scientists said yesterday. Under plans set out
by the biotechnology company Monsanto and New Zealand's Forest
Research Agency, the sterile plantations will be engineered to
secrete toxic chemicals through their leaves to kill caterpillars
and other leaf-eating insects and to resist herbicides, allowing
ground flora to be eliminated easily. Scientists from companies
and regulatory bodies, such as English Nature, agree that before
GM trees can be allowed to grow in the open, they must be made
sterile to prevent the contamination of wild species with
modified DNA. But environmental groups believe that sterile trees
will bring a second "silent spring". The first, in Rachel
Carson's book of that name, described the advent of synthetic
pesticides, such as DDT.

Scientists meeting at the Oxford University Museum this week for
an international symposium sponsored by Shell and Monsanto are
working on improving the value of trees, by making them grow
faster or by producing lignin-free timber to reduce the use of
chemicals and energy used in paper-making. They claim that GM
trees will have benefits. David Duncan of Monsanto said:
"Increasing the productivity of tree plantations safely and
sustainably will help meet the world's wood needs without
increasing pressure on native forests."

Dr Amy Brunner of Oregon State University is working on ways to
prevent flowering in black cottonwood and is being sponsored by
interested companies, including Shell and Monsanto, and the US
Department of Energy. She said: "You could argue that non
flowering trees would limit wildlife, but these trees are
intended only for specialised plantations. We do not want them to
replace native forests, but to be planted on bare marginal land
of no agricultural value."

Dr Jeff Skinner, also of Oregon State University, said that
exotic trees could be prevented from growing in places where they
did not belong. His work, also on black cottonwood, involves
attaching a poison-promoting gene to a "promoter" gene
responsible for stimulating flowering so that every time a flower
cell began to form it poisoned itself and died. But ecologists
are horrified. George McGavin, curator of Entomology at Oxford
University Museum, said: "If you replace vast tracts of natural
forest with flowerless trees there will be a serious effect on
the richness and abundance of insects. "If you put insect
resistance in the leaves as well you will end up with nothing but
booklice and earwigs. We are talking about vast tracts of land
covered with plants that do not support animal life as a sterile
means of culturing wood tissue. That is a pretty unattractive
vision of the future and one I want no part of."

Friends of the Earth says that scientists will have little power
to determine how their technology is applied in practice. Sarah
Tyack, of Friends of the Earth, said: "The idea that
intensively-managed plantations take pressure off natural forests
is a myth. What is happening is that natural forest is being
cleared to make way for intensive plantations. GM trees will
accelerate that process." Hanna Scrase, of the Forestry
Stewardship Council, the leading global certification body, said:
"Our position is simple. We do not allow GM trees." Martin
Mathers of the World Wide Fund for Nature said: "These trees will
support even lower levels of biodiversity than conifer
monocultures. At least Sitka spruce has nectar and cones that
support insects, red squirrels, cross-bills and other birds."

The private forestry industry is also uneasy about GM trees. Len
Yull, chairman of the Timber Growers' Association, said: "I have
yet to see anyone put a convincing case that GM technology would
create a sufficiently superior product to achieve a real market
advantage, and these things are market and profit driven."

-| Hartmut Meyer
-| Co-ordinator
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
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