2-Plants: US environmentalists warn of GE trees
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----------------------------- GENET-news -----------------------------
TITLE: US environmentalists warn of GE trees
SOURCE: IPS World News, by Danielle Knight
DATE: May 4, 2000
-------------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ --------------------
US environmentalists warn of GE trees
WASHINGTON - Following the outcries against genetically engineered
crops, environmental groups are beginning to take aim at plans
underway to alter the genes of trees grown for pulp and paper
products. While forest-related biotech research is still in its
infancy compared with that taking place in agriculture, field trials
of GM trees have proliferated around the world during the second half
of the 1990s. Now environmentalists are starting to pay attention to
research links made between large biotechnology companies and the
paper and pulp industry to develop faster growing trees that could be
designed to work together with herbicides.
Ecologists worry that the drive for profit is causing these companies
to overlook the overall impact genetically modified trees could have
on the complex workings of ecosystems. The economic incentive for
these companies to produce trees more quickly cannot be
overemphasised, say groups which estimate the value of the world's
total annual timber harvest is in excess of 400 billion dollars.
Environmentalists fear, for example, that new GM traits - such as
herbicide resistance - could possibly spread to other trees through
cross fertilisation. This could cause certain trees to take over
ecosystems and cause other native species to go extinct. "We feel
that this is a very dangerous trend in industrial forestry and a real
threat to bio-diversity, forest ecosystems and the planet," says
Patrick Reinsborough, outreach co-ordinator for the California-based
Rainforest Action Network.
Last April, Monsanto Company (expected to merge with Pharmacia
Upjohn), hooked up with International Paper, Westvaco Corporation
(both based in New York) and the New Zealand -- based Fletcher
Challenge Forests to form a forestry biotechnology joint venture. The
four companies will contribute 60 million dollars over five years to
produce and market tree seedlings that they say will improve forest
health and productivity. Researchers will focus on altering the
genetic traits of tree species commonly planted by the forest
industry worldwide, such as eucalyptus, poplar, radiata pine,
loblolly pine and sweetgum trees, say the companies.
Besides increasing the growth rates of tree, they plan to also focus
on making these trees tolerant to certain herbicides, much like
Monsanto's 'Round-up Ready' soy beans which are genetically designed
to survive sprayings of an herbicide it manufactures.
They say they will also aim to improve the fibre quality and
uniformity to increase efficiency in paper and wood products
manufacturing processes. "Increasing the productivity of tree
plantations safely and sustainably will help meet the world's wood
and fibre needs without increasing pressure on native forests," says
a statement released by Westvaco.
But environmental groups say that just like biologically modified
corn and soy, not all the possible impacts of genetically altering
trees have been adequately studied and tested. "The use of
genetically engineered trees intensifies the many concerns about the
use of genetically engineered crops," says Rebecca Goldburg, a senior
scientist with Environmental Defense, a Washington-based group
critical of the technology.
Since trees grown uniformly on plantations for paper and pulp are
often nearby natural native forests, environmentalists fear that
cross pollination will be very likely. Goldburg says that pollen from
trees are known to travel great distances by the wind. "Buffer zones"
of 50 or so metres - intended to shield traditional crops and native
trees from genetically modified pollen - as advocated by biotech
companies are inadequate given that pollen from some pine trees have
been known to travel hundreds of kilometres, she says.
One of the proposed gene altering strategies to increase tree growth
rates involves shutting off the tree's ability to reproduce so that
all the organism's energy goes towards development instead of
fertility. If traits affecting reproduction escape to wild trees
whole species could be jeopardised, warn groups. "The risks of
genetic pollution in our remaining native forests are irreversible
and potentially one of the greatest threats to bio-diversity ever,"
says Mick Petrie, a campaigner with the Native Forest Network (NFN),
an advocacy group based in the state of Vermont.
According to NFN, companies can now alter trees to substantially
reduce lignin, a component of the cell walls in trees and other
plants that is essential for the structure of the plant, aiding in
strength and vascular functions. Pulp and paper companies must remove
the lignin from wood pulp to make paper. But now researchers have
devised a way to genetically disrupt a tree's production of lignin.
"The actual processes that form lignin are poorly understood, and how
diminished production of essential enzymes within may affect other
functions is unknown," says NFN, in a recent newsletter to its
members. Because lignin is essential to a tree's strength, lowering
lignin could adversely affect a tree's ability to withstand wind
without damage, says the group.
"Escape of low-lignin genes into the wild is a significant worry, and
could have devastating consequences on native forests," it says. The
altering of lignin production underlies that more research is
required to fill gaps in the understanding of tree biology and
ecology, say environmentalists.
Trees are very complex organisms. Recent studies, for example,
revealed that some trees, when attacked by caterpillars, release a
chemical warning to surrounding trees, which alter the chemical
structure of their leaves to be unappealing to the caterpillars. "How
will altering gene codes affect these and other little understood
behaviours? " asks NFN.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says that trees - unlike crops - can take
up to hundreds of years to fully mature and are therefore subject to
a much wider range of environmental stresses, and these stresses can
in turn affect the behaviour of the modified genome. "At present,
nobody can confidently quantify the environmental risks surrounding
genetically modified trees," the group says in a report on
genetically modified trees published last year.
Given all of the unknowns, WWF is urging governments to declare a
moratorium on the commercial release of GM trees and encouraging the
industrial forest sector to do the same voluntarily. While calling
for government regulators of biotechnology to better consult with
environmental organisations, WWF is also prodding the paper and
biotechnology industries to redesign field trials to examine broader
environmental impacts. "Any decision as to whether biotechnology has
a role in commercial forestry should only be made once the risks
involved are properly identified and quantified," says WWF.
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