New Studies Expose Potential Risks of GMO Trees

For Immediate International Release                             May 4, 2010
Red Flags Raised About Potential Negative Impacts of Proposed Large-Scale Release of Genetically Engineered Trees in the U.S.

Washington, DC– While the U.S. Supreme Court hears its first-ever case involving a genetically modified organism, alarms are sounding over the proposed planting of more than a quarter of a million genetically engineered (GE) eucalyptus trees in the U.S., and transgenic trees are being globally condemned.
On April 27, the Supreme Court began to hear a case challenging a ban on the planting of a genetically engineered perennial alfalfa.  The ban was implemented due to concerns about escape and contamination, and the inability of U.S. regulators to protect the public. [1]
In April, Reuters released a report exposing the fact that U.S. regulating agencies have “dropped the ball” when it comes to evaluating the potential risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). [2]
Reuters highlighted concerns that, “the U.S. government conducts no independent testing of these biotech crops before they are approved, and does little to track their consequences after.”  The report even went so far as to state, “Indeed, many experts say the U.S. government does more to promote global acceptance of biotech crops than to protect the public from possible harmful consequences.”
This is a particular concern since the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), one of the named agencies in the report, is considering approving a request by ArborGen to plant 260,000 GE trees across seven states even though researchers admit some of these trees produce viable pollen and some seedlings are assured to escape.
Referring to the questionable efficacy of the altered fertility technology in these GE trees, researcher Steve Strauss said, “There does not seem to have been any serious field studies, in any crop, sufficient to estimate the operational effectiveness of containment genes.”  Adding, “Until many such studies are published, it would be unwise to assume that genes can be fully and safely contained in the near future.” [3]
Additionally, MSNBC [4], NPR [5] and PLoS Pathogens [6] recently reported that a new strain of a deadly pathogenic fungus, Cryptococcus gattii, has been causing fatal human illnesses throughout the Pacific Northwest.  The fungus, which is known to grow on some species of eucalyptus trees, has killed one on four people in Oregon, and 40 out of 220 people infected throughout the region. While it is not known whether genetically engineered eucalyptus plantations would be a host for the fungus, the fact that some of the GE eucalyptus would have reduced lignin has raised concerns that they could be more susceptible to fungal infection.
Another study by researcher Claire Williams, recently published in the American Journal of Botany, found that pollen from trees remains viable over long distances. [7] This raises concerns about the potential for pollen from genetically engineered versions of native tree species like pines to travel large distances and contaminate forests.  Williams’ study found that, “GM pine plantings have the potential to disperse viable pollen at least 41 kilometers from the source.”
On April 22, during the World Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a broad gathering of Indigenous Peoples, social movements and organizations from around the world, issued a consensus condemnation of transgenic trees (GMO trees) and monoculture plantations.  [8]
“Given all of this evidence, the USDA should not even consider approving the release of any genetically engineered trees,” insisted Anne Petermann of Global Justice Ecology Project and the STOP GE Trees Campaign. [9]  “The fact that there are so many unknowns and no independent studies evaluating the risks of GE trees–which include human health risks and damage to forests and wildlife–is a major reason why the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2006 and 2008 urged countries to use the Precautionary Principle with regard to GE trees.  The Precautionary Principle would require GE trees to be proven safe before they are released.” [10]
Contact: Dr. Neil Carman, Sierra Club +1.512.288.5772
Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project +1.802.578.0477
[1] “Monsanto’s GM Crops Go to US High Court, Environmental Laws on the Line,” published on Monday, April 26, 2010 by Inter Press Service
[2] “Special Report: Are Regulators Dropping the Ball on Biocrops?” by Carey Gillam, Reuters, published on Tuesday, April 13, 2010
[3] “USDA Weighs Plan to Bring GM Eucalyptus to Southeast Pinelands,” by Paul Voosen of Greenwire published on January 29, 2010, in the New York Times
[4] “Deadly airborne fungus in Oregon set to spread”, by Charles Q. Choi, published on April 22, 2010, MSNBC
[5] “Fungal Disease Spreads Through Pacific Northwest,” by Richard Knox published on April 23, 2010

[6] “New Strain of Virulent Airborne Fungi, Unique to Oregon, Looks Set to Spread,” from PLoS Pathogens, a Peer Reviewed Open Access Journal published by the Public Library of Science,
[7] “Long-Distance Pine Pollen Still Germinates After Meso-Scale Dispersal” by Claire Williams, published in the May 2010 edition of the American Journal of Botany
[8] “Indigenous Groups Condemn REDD as a Threat”, published on April 23 by Alertnet
[9] The STOP GE Trees Campaign is an alliance of organizations from across the U.S. and around the world that have joined together to stop the release of genetically engineered trees into the environment
(r) Reaffirm the need to take a precautionary approach when addressing the issue of genetically modified trees;
(s) Authorize the release of genetically modified trees only after completion of studies in containment, including in greenhouse and confined field trials, in accordance with national legislation where existent, addressing long-term effects as well as thorough, comprehensive, science-based and transparent risk assessments to avoid possible negative environmental impacts on forest biological diversity;
(t) Also consider the potential socio-economic impacts of genetically modified trees as well as their potential impact on the livelihoods of indigenous and local communities;”

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