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Loggers plan giant genetically manipulated trees



SUNDAY INDEPENDENT (London) May 16


By Marie Woolf, Political Correspondent

Forests of giant genetically engineered trees are being planned in a
development which ecologists fear will threaten entire ecosystems. 

Pulp and paper companies have teamed up with the world's leading
biotechnology firms to alter trees genetically to make them grow faster,
pulp more easily and give them resistance to pests. 

But the drive to create "designer trees" has caused alarm among
environmentalists who fear that it could cause irreparable damage to the
plants, insects and animals that rely on trees to survive. 

They say that if logging companies create "custom-made" trees the world's
forests could be disrupted, along with the complex ecosystems they
sustain. 

They also fear that new GM traits - such as herbicide resistance - will be
spread to natural trees, creating hybrids. In a nightmarish vision of the
future, they warn that trees engineered to grow faster could cross-breed
with their ordinary relatives, creating enormous trees which block out the
sun, suck up huge amounts of water and damage houses with their giant
roots. 

Several patents on genetically modifying the structure of trees have
recently been filed and multi-million dollar joint ventures are already
being forged between logging companies and agro-chemical firms. 

Last month, Monsanto signed a $60m joint venture with International Paper,
Westvaco Corporation and Fletcher Challenge Forests to genetically
engineer faster-growing trees with improved fibre quality. 

In Britain, the first test site of genetically engineered poplar trees has
been planted near Bracknell, Berkshire, by biotechnology company Zeneca. 

The EU-funded experiment is designed to create a species which can produce
cleaner paper. All the GM trees are female so they cannot breed with
neighbouring species. 

But environmentalists fear that, because trees take up to 100 years to
mature, it will be impossible to conduct proper tests to predict any
effects on the environment. 

The Forestry Commission, the Government's ruling body on UK woodland, has
been experimenting with engineering the genes in Sitka spruce to make the
pine resistant to pests and diseases. But the Commission has warned that
GM organisms should not be used in forestry in the UK until they have been
properly tested. 



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