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Wrap Up Blog Post from IUFRO Tree Biotechnology 2011 Conference

Arraial d’Ajuda, Bahia, Brazil (Part I of II)

by Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project

In this blog post and it’s follow up part two, I discuss the main presentations of IUFRO’s Tree Biotechnology Conference which occurred in the final stretch of the conference.  Steve Strauss, tree geneticist and industry proponent, gave two presentations during this time, which I describe below.  They provide an excellent substrate for developing the analysis as to why genetically engineered trees (GE trees) are a bad idea.

Steve Strauss Defends GE Trees at the UN CBD in Rome. Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

Steve Strauss Presentation #1: “Field Trials of GM trees in the US and a Peek at Global Regulatory Burdens (“in the eyes of scientists”)

Strauss started this presentation on regulation of GM trees by stating that regulation in the US is problematic because there are no laws specifically governing GM trees.

He then provided a little background on GE tree field trials in the US:

Over 1995-1999 there were 100 field trials in the US

Over 2000-2004, there were 200

Over 2005-2009, there were 300

From 2010-now, there are 50 (so far—on track with previous rates)

In 2007 there were 60 GE poplar field trials, 40 GE eucalyptus and 60 pine

In 2011, poplar and eucalyptus are the leaders

The average size of the the field trials in the US:

GE poplar: 15 acres

GE eucalyptus: 30 acres

He explained why the GE eucalyptus test plots are so much larger by pointing out that “the GE eucalyptus are pre-commercial, which is why ArborGen is taking a careful look at them in large plots.”

He further explained, “In the US, once it [a GE tree] is deregulated [commercially released], its not tracked any further, unlike Europe.”

Which is one of the reasons that Global Justice Ecology Project and the STOP GE Trees Campaign are working so hard to stop the deregulation of GE trees in the US—because any social or ecological impacts of the large-scale release of these non-native genetically engineered tree clones would be tracked only by industry—if at all.  The impacts of opening Pandora’s Box would be unmonitored.

Strauss’s next presentation happened during the section of the conference dealing with biosafety, oddly enough.  It was called, Transgenic Biotechnology in Forestry: What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been (I think Jerry Garcia would be rolling over in his grave…)

Here are a few select tidbits from Steve’s opening remarks:

1) The problem of gene flow is a huge problem. 

Yes, right.  Got that.

2)  Scientists are giving out too much information for the public to understand/digest it.

Really?  The whole notion of “Confidential Business Information” when it comes to companies manufacturing GMOs, is that they don’t have to publicly disclose much information for fear someone might steal it or use it in some way that is detrimental to the interests of the corporation.  Too LITTLE information is the problem.

3) There is no real difference between GMO and non-GMO.  Its about the technique, not the transgenic aspect of the process.

Ummm…  Huh?  As renowned geneticist David Suzuki points out in the film A Silent Forest: The Growing Threat, Genetically Engineered Trees,  “If we take a gene out of one species and put it into an entirely unrelated species—we’ve never done that before and it’s absolutely bad science to say that we can use [traditional breeding] to predict what will happen with [genetic engineering], it’s just lousy science.”

Strauss went on to describe why genetic engineering makes him happy:

• The history of GE crops has been very positive–except for maybe a little too much RoundUp.

A little too much RoundUp?  Try herbicide resistant weeds taking over and forcing farmers to rely on increasingly toxic weed killers.  Oh, and the productivity levels touted by corporations like Monsanto about their GE crops haven’t panned out either…

• Virus resistant papaya in Hawaii has been a huge success.  “GM papaya has made it easy to be an organic papaya farmer in Hawaii, but I haven’t seen any thanks from them yet.” 

Whoa…  Maybe this is because organic papaya farmers in Hawaii were virtually wiped out by GMO papaya, which contaminated over 50% of non-GMO papaya on the big island of Hawaii.  In addition, while the transgenic trait was successful at knocking down the ringspot virus (at least for now), it also had the unanticipated consequence of making the GMO papayas susceptible to black spot fungus requiring applications of fungicide.

• We have seen unexpected mutants, but the occurrence has been low.

Oh, good.  Only a few unexpected mutants.  I feel SO much better…

• RoundUp ready trees grow 20% faster

Didn’t we just discuss the whole thing about too much RoundUp not being a good idea?

He next described the anti-GMO movement starting in the 1990s, and explained that it was disruptive to society.  (He lost me on that one…)

In this vein, he suggested reading the paper by Ron Herring called “Persistent Global Cognitive Rift on Biotechnology.”  (Sounds like someone has large word envy…)

He went on to call the anti-biotech movement “crazy” with “no credibility”.

Following that, he recited the history of eco-vandalism against GE tree research which started 1999 with the destruction of low-lignin GE poplars in England, which was the same year that IUFRO had a forest biotechnology conference in Oxford.  There was a newspaper article published at the time called “Frankenstein’s Forest.”  He then discussed the vandalism against the field trials and labs in the pacific northwest in 2001, and the public protest we did against GE trees at a conference on the topic at Skamania Lodge in Washington state.  He claims anti-GMO activists were invited to participate but declined.  I don’t remember getting an invitation…

He next complained that the regulatory system is a jungle, and is keeping a lot of research down.  He accompanied this point with a slide of his “Forest Biotechnology: Strangled at Birth” article that he wrote following the 2008 UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Bonn in which he complains about the success of Global Justice Ecology Project winning a decision by the UN body cautioning countries about use of GE trees.  He said these international regulations [which are strictly voluntary, by the way] are making national regulations harder.

Then he mentioned an action alert that had been sent out on Tuesday July 1st which caused him to get, “hundreds of spam emails jamming up his in box” and put a quote from it up on the screen:

“There is the real possibility that new genes spliced into GE trees will irreversibly contaminate forests, or that the trees themselves will invade wild forests. Forests on private land, national forests or national parks, will be changed forever.”

“Gene flow,” he reiterated, “is a big problem.  Genes will get out.  There is no question, pollen moves far.”

Alright then, if that’s the case, shouldn’t GE trees NOT be released into the environment, because they will irreversibly contaminate forests with unpredictable impacts?

Wrong.  Strauss continued, “we need to engineer genetic containment to deal with it.”  Then he asked, “is imperfect sterility useful?”  And answered his question by saying, “we can reasonably safely deploy imperfectly sterile trees, even if the trees have been engineered with traits that make them more competitive than native trees.” He conceded, however that, “Ultimately, we will need  a failsafe containment system, but this will take time.”

Right.  But in the meantime, let’s barrel ahead with commercial large-scale release of these impossible to contain GMO trees, pretending we know what the [bleep] we’re doing.

Then he made a brief reference to the GMO rice legal outcome (see our blog post on the topic), and said that the threat of contamination will lead to lawsuits that will stop development.

One would hope so…

He then gave his interpretation of the way the GMO issue plays out in the mind of the public:

Anti-GMO vs. GMO corporations =

• Left/ socialist vs. Right/ Capitalist

• Transparency & Openness vs. Secrecy & Competition

• Open Source/ Sharing vs. Patents and Private Property

• Non-profit vs. Corporate/ profit-making

• Natural vs. Techno.

“The common message is: ‘I don’t like Monsanto,’” he said, to big audience laughter.

But, he said, this perception is wrong.  Science is not a capitalist, closed model, it is a social and democratic model.

Yeah, right.  Unfortunately, what he failed to mention is that science is often bought and paid for by corporations that plan to use it to make lots of profits, and that this science tends to say whatever that corporation wants it to.  As one graduate student from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul explained, “[Our] working hypothesis is that GMO and non-GMO eucalyptus trees are exactly the same except for the GMO traits.”

And guess what?  All of his slides had the name and logo for “Futuragene” on them…

Finally Strauss concluded with “In a nutshell, it’s a religious/ideological issue,”  showing an issue of the publication ECO that Global Justice Ecology Project had co-produced with the CBD Alliance at the 2008 UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn calling for the total ban on genetically engineered trees globally.

He then segued into the Forest Stewardship Council’s refusal to certify GE trees because there is not enough science.

He used these two points to illustrate his disdain for the ‘precautionary principle’ [that is, the principle that a product or a technology should not be deployed until proved safe]. He said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” And, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Stay tuned for IUFRO Tree Biotechnology 2011 Wrap Up II Coming Soon to a blog near you.

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Filed under Climate Change, GE Trees, Genetic Engineering, Greenwashing, Latin America-Caribbean, Posts from Anne Petermann