If developed commercially on a large scale, genetically engineered trees, like GE crops, would be a persistent pest: no matter how much effort is put into containing them, in concept and in practice, they would keep on spreading uncontrollably. With the rapidly growing synthetic biology industry seeking low-lignin cellulose to produce agrofuels; with forest-carbon schemes seeking to enhance carbon stock with fast-growing trees; and with industry lobbyists working overtime to get the USDA to fast-track approval of GE eucalyptus tree field-trials across the U.S. south, 2012 is going to be a critical year for the campaign to stop genetically engineered trees.
Today on Climate Connections, we provide a snapshot view of the GE tree story, from its beginnings to the present.
- Jeff Conant, for GJEP
A Brief History of Genetically Engineered Trees
By Sarah Harrison, for Climate Connections
Even the introduction of non-GE tree monocultures has been proven to have an incredibly damaging effect on local eco-systems and communities. Eucalyptus trees are already considered to be an invasive species in Florida and California and have a whole host of associated problems due their flammability and high demand for water.
Despite all the evidence, the USDA continues to support development of these and other GE trees, so what are the links between the multinational companies and the regulatory bodies that are supposed to protect the environment? With ArborGen’s pending controversial application to the USDA to grow flowering GE Eucalyptus trees in commercial plantations across the US it seems appropriate to have a look at the history of GE field trials across the globe and the regulation (or lack of it) that has been in place over the last 20 years.
Early GE Trials
The first field trials of GE trees were started in Belgium in 1988 when researchers began to develop GE Poplars which were genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides. By 1999 the Biotech nightmare was a reality with multinationals such as Monsanto, International Paper, Fletcher Challenge Forests and the Westvaco Corporation supporting GE tree trials at over 116 sites in 17 countries including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, UK, USA and Uruguay.
The first trees to get the GE treatment were the fast growing varieties such as Eucalyptus, Poplars and Pines with the intention to produce crops that were herbicide and/or insect resistant, faster growing and produced higher yields for the timber and pulp industries. Naturally all of these tendencies would result in higher profit margins for the companies that were investing in them rather than enhanced benefit to the environment.
Emphasis was placed upon the “sustainability and eco-efficiency” of these variants; however there was fierce opposition from Indigenous Peoples, environmental activists and academics worldwide because it was already apparent that these trees would be far more dependent on herbicides and fertilizers, and far more damaging to local ecosystems, than any kind of mono-culture introduced during the “Green Revolution”. In 1999 the World Wildlife Fund called for a Global Moratorium on all GE trees being grown throughout the world, with the emphasis on the social and environmental impact of the trials and the lack of safety and regulation. And in 2000, a campaign was launched for a global ban on GE trees, which in 2003 became the STOP GE Trees Campaign. Today the campaign has nearly 200 member groups all over the world who support the call for a global ban on the release of GE trees into the environment.
Keeping up with Consumption
The main drive for the development of GE trees at this time was to keep up with the alleged demand for resources such as timber and paper production, as well as the false environmental claim that they would act as a carbon sink to combat climate change. There was never any consideration to the idea that cutting down on consumption was a viable solution to the issues faced. After all, cutting down on consumption means less profits for big businesses.
By 2002 GE Poplars had been commercially planted in various sites across China, ostensibly to help with the country’s huge deforestation problem. By 2004 it was evident that genes from these GE poplar trees were appearing in non-GE varieties that were growing nearby and that cross-contamination was already a reality. Poplars weren’t the only GE trees being grown commercially at this time. Hawaiian farmers suffered huge losses when cross contamination from GE Papaya trees destroyed organic and backyard plants across the island in 2003.
New claims about the benefits of GE trees after UN calls for a global moratorium
By 2006 the Eighth Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity called for a global moratorium on the development of GE trees in order to protect delicate ecosystems and indigenous populations from the problems brought about by introducing GE variants into the environment. This call was renewed and strengthened at the Ninth Conference of the Parties of the CBD in Bonn in 2008.
Undeterred, GE tree proponents put forward the idea that GE trees could produce ethanol for fuel consumption and reduce dependency on fossil fuels. Since the manufacture of ethanol from food crops was coming under attack due to rising food shortages, non-food cellulosic feedstocks like GE trees were promoted. Funded by the US Department of Energy, the debate over GE trees for use as a fuel feedstock continues to this day, despite the overwhelming evidence that this would be a disaster for the environment. Providing more fuel to an economy that’s destroying the World is like helping an addict by supplying more drugs. However, this new debate signifies a turning point in the corporate agenda, as oil companies such as BP and Chevron take an interest in GE trees and the profits they can potentially unleash.
To any onlooker it seems that the so-called regulatory bodies are doing little to prevent huge companies such as ArborGen, a company co-founded by Monsanto, International Paper and MeadWestvaco, from taking over. The links between Congress and multi-nationals such as Monsanto are huge. You get a lot of political clout when in 2010 alone you give over $658,207 to federal candidates, as Monsanto has done. Splitting that money evenly between both parties ensures that your interests are safe from regulatory interference from the USDA or anyone else.
Of course, these aren’t the only companies with a vested interest in the development of GE tree plantations. Fuel companies, paper and timber industries and chemical and textile producers all have a lot to gain from unleashing GE trees into the environment and are all lobbying Congress to see their plans come to fruition. It will take consistent, ongoing, public opposition to these plans to stop the damage before it’s too late.