By Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project
More analysis of the presentations at the opening night of the Tree Biotechnology 2011 conference in Arraial d’Ajuda Brazil.
The logo of the conference, I should mention, is quite interesting. It is a tree made out of double helixes. There is a brown double helix as a curvy trunk, and bursting forth from its top is a spiral of green double helixes. It reminds me of a dandelion head being blown by a child. The scientists assembled here like to think they can manipulate the DNA of trees just as easily as the artist used them to make this logo.
On Sunday night, following the presentation by the CEO of event co-host Veracel, the hour long keynote presentation was given by Ron Sederoff, a veteran tree geneticist from North Carolina State University. He started off by describing how appropriate this gathering was in 2011—the International Year of Forestry. This was a perhaps Freudian slip. 2011 is the UN declared International Year of Forests—not the year of the industry that has become fabulously well to do at their expense. Though, with the UN being more and more controlled by business, it might as well be the International Year of Forestry. Especially since the UN doesn’t even have a proper definition of forests.
Ron’s first encounter with GE trees, he recalled, was a science symposium organized by timber multinational Weyerhaeuser back in 1984.
He spoke at length about just how far the science has come in the past 25 years, but also stressed just how much further it has to go to really be practically useful. This was echoed by a young woman I overheard during one of the breaks, who said “It seems like no matter how far we get, we still have the same distance to go.” This subtle vibe of frustrated pessimism hung like a thin fog over many of the breaktime conversations, when people left their powerpoints behind and talked candidly about where they felt their work was going.
In noting the different things he and his fellow tree geneticists and tree engineers had learned over the years, Ron included the “unanticipated difficulties in public acceptance.”
This one struck me. Really? I thought. My god, there was so much opposition to genetically engineered crops from the beginning, with people pulling crops in the US and Europe, and the EU banning the import of GMO foods or seeds. Then on the other side, there were the active radical environmental campaigns to protect forests through the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s. Our organization in the 1990s was involved in both the anti-biotechnology movement and the forest protection movement, so our launch of the campaign to stop genetically engineered trees in 2000 was a natural step—especially when we learned that no one else had yet taken up the cause (which was mainly because no one had heard about GE trees yet).
I find it hard to imagine that Ron and his colleagues did not foresee massive public opposition to their Frankentree designs. We understood it instantly.
He then launched into a list of hurtles yet to be conquered. 1) Most gene functions remain unknown; 2) Pleitropy is still to be defined; 3) feedback control is limited; 4) the science is confounded by redundancy and lethality; and 4) there are multiple levels of regulations. He added another question to be answered: to what extent does diversity depend on new genes, or merely new interactions between old genes?
About the direction of sequencing DNA he quoted a colleague who said, “it’s the wild west out there.” This is another theme that has been repeated through the week. While I think they mean it to say that its in a stage where anything is possible, it could be taken in a much different way. I could imagine Ward Churchill, for example, having a field day with the idea. Probably discussing Manifest Destiny as the common thread—the imperative to conquer this country from coast to coast irrespective of the consequences; with the imperative to create, as Ron called “The I-Tree Video Game”– a computer program that could be used to determine what gene needs to be changed (what switch needs to be turned on or off) to get a particular desired result. He described a systems theory approach where: “to the extent that [plants are machines], they can be described by the behavior of their components and consequently in mathematical models, which can then be used to make predictions. In this way you could make the tree do anything you wanted it to, just by running the computer program.
But probably the most enlightening part of the keynote was the discussion of genetic engineering with regard to restoring threatened species like the American Chestnut. Don went back to describe the dense stands of chestnuts, and their great economic and social value. He described the consequences of the Chestnut blight (a fungal infestation), which, he said, killed 4 billion trees and was “the greatest ecological disaster in the US.” I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, but it certainly had extensive ramifications, including the replacement of the vast stands of chestnut in the Southeast with stands of pine and poplar.
The pine plantations of the Southeast have themselves been ecologically disastrous. But the native forests throughout the east survived and adapted to the loss of the chestnut, though they are now struggling with new diseases and pests, which, like the chestnut blight, were imported from afar. The native hardwood forests of the southeast—the ones that have survived the onslaught of loblolly pines—are some of the most biodiverse forests on the planet.
And they have a new exotic threat to worry about. ArborGen’s cold tolerant GE eucalyptus (which they plan to sell by the billions for planting in the US South) came from a hybrid created in Brazil [eucalyptus, mind you, are native to Australia] that was sent to New Zealand for genetic modification, then shipped to the US for outdoor field trials. I think some important lessons were lost somewhere along the way…
Eucalyptus Globulus was imported into California in the middle 1800s. It now has invaded vast regions of the state and California spends millions annually on eucalyptus eradication due to its propensity to exacerbate wildfires. But sure, plant billions of GE cold-tolerant eucalyptus across the South, what could it hurt…
But back to the American chestnut. Ron anticipated that GE chestnut trees (engineered to resist the fungal blight) would be the first forest tree to apply for regulatory approval for release into forests in the US. [I don’t know if he hadn’t heard of ArborGen’s pending request to deregulate their GE cold tolerant eucalyptus trees in the US, or he was saying that GE chestnuts would receive permission to plant within wild forests, rather than plantations.]
His argument for allowing the unregulated release of GE chestnuts was that there would be, “little ecological damage compared to what’s already happened.” Hmmm… He said that quite confidently for someone who only a little while earlier had talked about how little is known about how manipulated trees relate in a forest setting.
A forest ecosystem is wildly complex and biodiverse, with little known about the natural interactions between soils, fungi, insects, understory plants, wildlife and trees. What is known, however, is that mychorrhizal fungi are instrumental in nutrient uptake in trees, creating symbiotic relationships with and between tree species. Adding to the mix a tree engineered to resist fungus could indeed create some serious problems.
Pandora’s Box [of GE trees] must remain closed. Besides, there has been quite a lot of progress with non-GMO chestnuts. He didn’t mention those.
But Ron was quite determined. He said, “If GM chestnut can’t get approved, I don’t think any GM tree can get approved.” Interesting point…
Stay tuned for more tomorrow, when we all go on a field trip to the operations of Veracel. Fun, fun…