GENET archive


2-Plants: US environmentalists warn of GE trees

----------------------------- GENET-news -----------------------------

TITLE:  US environmentalists warn of GE trees
SOURCE: IPS World News, by Danielle Knight
DATE:   May 4, 2000

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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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