From the Tree Biotechnology 2011 Conference in Arraial d’Ajuda, Bahia, Brazil
By Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project
This morning was devoted to eucalyptus. Hybrid eucalyptus followed by genetically engineered eucalyptus. There was an interesting tension between researchers working with non-GMO clonal hybridization techniques of eucalyptus—such as we saw on our Veracel field trip on Wednesday—and those using transgenics; in other words, inserting genes from other species into the eucalyptus to try to get it to express very specific traits more quickly.
The second speaker of the day was from Brazil and explained in great detail the history of eucalyptus hybridization in Brazil, toward greater production. This process had begun in the 60s, he explained, when they were getting 6 tons of pulp per hectare per year; to the projected production for 2015 when they expect to get 16 tons of pulp per hectare per year.
But in addition to increasing production, they are also altering wood quality and wood density, and even breeding for freeze tolerance. The speaker, Teotonio de Assis seemed quite proud of the achievements made with these hybridization techniques over the past decades. Indeed, a full-grown tree in seven years is something (something very destructive, but we’ll get into that later).
But then came Ziv Shani of Futuragene Ltd. Futuragene is based in Brazil and Israel.
His presentation was called Eucalyptus Time! and emphasized why NOW is the time for genetically engineered eucalyptus.
First he started with the statistics. There are currently 19.6 million hectares of eucalyptus plantations worldwide. Brazil leads the pack with 4.7 million of those hectares, followed by India with 4.3, China with 2.6, South Africa with .58 and Thailand with .5 million hectares.
And because industry has perfected the standardization of the production methods for propogating clones of eucalyptus, now it is the time to genetically engineer them. “The time is ripe!” he said enthusiastically.
And in this way, he expounded, eucalyptus can be developed for specific “off-takes.” By this he meant different products such as ethanol, bioenergy, bioproducts, etc.
Then he showed two slides, one, a quaint pastoral painting depicting some people lying around in a field, which was supposed to represent organic farming practices. The other was serious, mechanized, industrious and represented “modern” industrial agriculture. In 2011, he argued, we have 7 billion people on the planet. “We need industry. We need large scale agriculture; AND we need to keep living on this planet.”
We need, he said, “to enhance the product while preserving today’s resource for tomorrow.”
He apparently has not seen the analysis of the long-term downward impacts on productivity of the so-called “green revolution” and the use of biotechnology in agriculture. Or about the “new menace” of herbicide tolerant weeds, resulting from the repeated heavy applications of Monsanto’s RoundUp on their roundup ready GMO crops—now requiring farmers to use even larger amounts of more toxic herbicides (just as was predicted by silly anti-GMO naysayers like us fifteen or twenty years ago…).
La Via Campesina has done some excellent work pointing out that small-scale organic and natural farming methods can feed a lot more people than the worn out soils of the GMO and industrial monocultures which require heavy inputs of petroleum-based fertilizers (which also contribute to climate change, by the way) and other chemicals.
But he had not heard of any of this, or if he had, he was keeping it to himself, so he continued, this time dragging out some of the tired old arguments about GMO trees that we have been countering for a decade.
1) Increasing the productivity of eucalyptus trees will grow more wood on less land (ArborGen’s motto) and therefore protect native forests. No it won’t. It will mean that eucalyptus is even more profitable, creating increased incentives for landowners to convert their forests to eucalyptus. Plantations grow where native ecosystems once stood—whether forest or grassland. As demand for wood increases (like for the ethanol, bioenergy and bioproducts he mentioned earlier), the forests will be cut down and replaced with “high productivity” plantations.
2) GMO trees can reduce the need for chemicals. Sure. You don’t need to apply insecticides to insect-resistant GMO trees, because the entire tree is a pesticide. Every bit of it, from the leaves to the roots to the pollen. Oh yeah, and the insecticide then enters and wreaks havoc in the soils, gets into the water, and blows around in the wind in the pollen, so that wildlife and people can inhale it and have the pesticide directly enter their bloodstream by way of their lungs. Good plan.
3) GMO trees will help us with climate adaptation. Nothing will help our forests with climate adaptation except halting climate disruption by curtailing the emission of greenhouse gases. And ensuring that native forests are maintained in large interconnected tracts so that species can migrate and adapt as needed to the changing climate. Plantations are not in the equation. In fact, plantations store only about ¼ the carbon of native forests, so expanding plantations actually worsens climate change.
But as our intrepid tree engineer pointed out, “Industrial production cannot wait 100 years for evolution.”
And just so you don’t worry, Futuragene is working in partnership with the “Tree Biosafety and Genomics Research Cooperative” at Oregon State University. Well, if its got “biosafety” in the title, it must be okay, right?
The word “biosafety” was added to assuage public criticism and after several GMO tree trials in the Pacific Northwest were vandalized. It used to be just the plain old “Tree Genetic Engineering Research Cooperative” Or ‘Tree Jerk,’ as it was affectionately called.
The leader of this enterprise will be presenting tonight and tomorrow, so I will wait to tell you more about the history of Tree Jerk.
Back to Mr. Futuragene. One interesting factoid that he pulled out was that the entire research process just to identify and perfect one GMO tree trait is around $20-$40 million. And for this reason, he explained, “partnering” with academia (i.e. using unpaid or poorly paid graduate students) to make the venture more economical is critical.
And his final bold assertion: “The future sustainable forest will be a biotech forest!”
This was when there were rumblings in the crowd from the non-GMO eucalyptus breeders who took offense to his casual dismissal of their craft.
Kinda like watching the right wing Republicans argue with the leaders of the Tea Party…
Whether GMO or not, eucalyptus plantations are destructive. But rapidly increasing their productivity (and hence their need for fertilizers, ground water, herbicides, etc) will cause even more severe impacts. And engineering them to be cold tolerant (such as they are attempting in the US) will enable their production in new regions meaning the loss of even more forests at exactly the time when we need our forests more than ever.
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