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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

Blog Post for Friday: Eucalyptus Time!

From the Tree Biotechnology 2011 Conference in Arraial d’Ajuda, Bahia, Brazil 

Eucalyptus plantation. Photo: Petermann/ GJEP-GFC

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!”

Wanna bet…

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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Photo Essay from the Tree Biotechnology 2011 Conference Field Trip Hosted by Veracel

On Wednesday, July 29th, around 200 participants divided into 4 groups toured various facilities owned by pulp company Veracel.  This photo essay explains what we learned on the field trip.

Photos and commentary by Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project (Exception: the last two photos are by GJEP Co-Director/Strategist Orin Langelle)

First Stop: Veracel Forest Preserve where children and visitors are “educated” about the importance of eucalyptus pulp and the “greenness” of Veracel.  Note that the human figure in the poster is exhibiting total dominance over the trees.

On the way into the forest preserve, children and visitors are presented with a native forest monster and representations of some of the scary wildlife that live in forests.

Veracel forest monster

Scary forest raptor

On the way through the 6,000 hectare forest preserve (80% of which is forested), a mixture of formerly logged lands and primary forest, participants were treated to a canopy rope bridge and photo shoots with 4 large trees we encountered on the path.  Most of the forest contained very young trees.

canopy rope bridge

one of the four big trees

The primary Mata Atlantica forest once stretched over much of the eastern edge of Brazil.  Large swaths of it have been eliminated and replaced with eucalyptus plantations.  Veracel took us next to the tree nursery where they propogate the 17 million eucalyptus clones they produce annually.  Henry Ford would have been proud.  The nursery was a very efficient assembly line operation.

Taking Cuttings to propagate new clones

"Clonal Garden"

Assembly line for clones 1

Assembly line for clones 2

Assembly line for clones 3

All the happy clones together

The next step for these clones, of course, is to be transformed into large-scale monoculture eucalyptus plantations.  Veracel harvests 11,000 of these 7 year old eucalyptus trees every day for their pulp mill.  Virtually the entire timbering operation is heavily mechanized to employ the fewest people possible, and uses an assortment of chemicals, from a petroleum-based hydrophilic polymer that is planted with the seedlings, to glyphosate-based herbicides that are applied to keep out competition plants, to the insecticides used to control “pests.”  In this way, Veracel can maximize its potential for profits.

The eucalyptus plantation

The mechanical harvester rapidly gobbles up the trees

The jaws of the harvester up close and personal

This employee, clearly bored, awaits his cue to show the visitors how the mechanized planter works

After a couple of tries, they were finally successful in showing how the mechanized planter works

The result. Note the petroleum-based polymer gel at the base of the seedling

Despite several quotes from Rachel Carson, John Muir, Emerson and other naturalists posted at the nature preserve, the plantations rely heavily on chemical applications.  The guide informed me that the trees get three applications of toxic herbicide over their 7 year life span.  As a result, the plantations of non-native trees are devoid of understory plants or biodiversity.  Social movements in Brazil call them “green deserts” for this reason.

the ground beneath the plantation is barren of other life forms

Rachel Carson quote in the Veracel forest preserve. Too bad they don't listen to her.

The ultimate purpose for the clones:

massive pile of eucalyptus chips at the Veracel pulp mill

From standing trees to boiled, bleached pulp in one day

The reason Veracel needs to greenwash their image: their giant stinking, polluting pulp mill

The stench of the pulp mill. "It smells like money".

Veracel's vision for the future: Make more money!

One of the obstacles, according to Veracel, of their achieving maximum productivity, is people breaking into their plantations.  On the way to the plantation, we passed what appeared to be an MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) encampment–black plastic shelters with a red MST flag flying high over them.  Indeed, elsewhere in Brazil, the MST as well as indigenous Tupinikim and Guarani populations, have taken over eucalyptus plantations and found better uses for the land.  In the case of the MST, as encampments for landless peasants.  In the case of the Indigenous Peoples, as a retaking of their ancestral lands from which they were forcibly removed when the timber company was given the land for plantations.  The cases we had previously documented were on Aracruz Cellulose land in Espirito Santo, but it seems to be occuring here in Bahia as well.  Below are photos from the encampments in Esprito Santo:

MST encampment in former eucalyptus plantation. The sign says "Eucalyptus plantations are not forests". Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

Indigenous community re-takes traditional lands, removes eucalyptus plantation. Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

Eucalyptus plantations have been such a smashing success in other parts of the world, that now GE tree company ArborGen is trying to engineer them to be cold-tolerant so that the joy of eucalyptus plantations can be spread to new and untrammeled lands.  In the United States they hope to sell half a billion GE cold tolerant eucalyptus trees annually for plantations from Texas to Florida.  They’re invasive? Flammable?  Dry up ground water and worsen droughts?  So?  What’s your point.  They will make a lot of money for a few powerful people.

To learn more or to sign our petition to the US Department of Agriculture opposing GE eucalyptus in the US, click here

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Wednesday Blog Post from the Tree Biotechnology 2011 Conference: Which Side Are You On?

By Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project

Today was the conference field trip sponsored by Veracel—the pulp giant of Bahia, Brazil.  Over the course of the 11 hour field trip I snapped about 350 photos—of everything from their greenwash “forest preserve” to their stinking smoking pulp mill, to their eucalyptus nursery assembly line, to their endless eucalyptus plantations and everything in between.  They were just as friendly as can be…

Now, However, it is going on 8:30pm.  So I will save my blog post and photo essay from this little treasure trove until tomorrow.  For now, some thoughts that demanded to be written down on Monday night—2 nights ago.  I hope you enjoy this little rant of mine.


Monday, June 27, 2011

Thoughts have been pouring through my head this evening, and so I decided to try a little “Breakfast of Champions” Vonnegut-style stream of consciousness writing.  Course it won’t have his cool pictures.  Though I can at least draw an asshole *.  But its hard to write stream of consciousness with this new computer whose keyboard is ever so slightly smaller than the one I am used to—which had a problem with the key with ? and / on it.  It kept falling out at the most inopportune moments.  One doesn’t realize how much one counts on the ? and / key until it falls out.

So I am here in this little “hippy” tourist town of Arraial d’Ajuda (don’t ask me to pronounce it) on the coast of Bahia, Brazil.  I am here to monitor and learn from a conference of tree geneticists, tree engineers and foresters gathered from the far reaches of the planet—many to practice their English, as they listen to highly technical presentations by native English speakers reciting their powerpoints as though they were a sports announcer describing a horserace.

The one thing I have most enjoyed about this place is the nights when I can enjoy the dark and secret hammock of my balcony next to the beach resort where the conference is being held.

It is peaceful out there on the terrace and the wind makes light ruffling noises with the palm fronds that reminds me of the sound of rain dripping from maple leaves after a downpour.

The simple things are what thrill me now.  The quiet secret escapes.  At one time travel was thrilling—the newness of it all, the adventure of not knowing what came next.  Well, that wore off a LOOONNGGG time ago.  Now the idea of sitting in stale overcrowded airports or big surreal metal tubes that hurtle through the sky at some ridiculous velocity is just not something I look forward to anymore.

And this is my…hmmm…fourth, fifth time to Brazil? Which is all well and good but truth be told I’d rather be in Chile.  Even though I barely understand a word of the heavily accented Spanish there and the taxicab drivers are most unpleasant, the people there—the Mapuche people—are amazing.  We went there after our first trip to the bizarre and incomprehensible world of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) in Buenos Aires—where we first made the argument to UN delegates that GE trees should be banned globally.  We brought over a Mapuche representative named Lorena to testify to the delegates about the impacts that tree plantations and their associated toxins were having on rural Mapuche communities—and how this would only worsen with GE trees.  And we formed a partnership with them to stop GE trees.  But we haven’t been back in a while.  Too long.

But that trip to Buenos Aires was when we got a real taste for how the UN actually works.  The reason that GE trees were permitted in carbon offset forestry projects, we found out, was because Norway had tried to get them banned.  Brazil and China objected strenuously, and hence, since they could not be banned, they were de facto allowed.  Welcome to the UN FCCC, boys and girls.

We then brought our demand to ban GE trees globally to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP-8) in Curitba, Brazil in 2006.

The demand got surprisingly far considering it was our first time there.  We caught the industry off-guard.  They would not allow that to happen again.  When we confronted them a second time at the next CBD in Bonn (COP-9) in 2008, they would be there with their hench men, the PRRI—pro-industry scientists posing as public interest researchers—who would present intervention after intervention about why GE trees were the best thing since sliced bread and would surely be the salvation of the world’s forests (despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary).

Industry even wheedled their way into the delegations of governments.  GE tree company ArborGen got themselves on the official delegation of Brazil.  As these UN meetings are based on consensus decision-making (or so they say), when Canada, New Zealand and Brazil formed a block to reject any decision to restrict GE trees, the best we could get was a reaffirmation of language from the previous COP warning of the dangers of GE trees and urging countries to adopt precautionary measures regarding GE trees.

But because the decisions of the CBD are all voluntary in their complicity and the number one driver of GE trees—the US—isn’t even signed onto the CBD (just as they are the number one producer of greenhouse gas emissions but are not signed onto the Kyoto Protocol climate agreement; and just as they are the biggest consumer of all things crap on the planet yet will not sign on to commitments to end child labor, or landmines, or basically anything that doesn’t totally suck…) Wonderous place this ole U S of A.

And all so the rich can get richer and the poor poorer, the planet and all of its inhabitants continue to suffer. Meanwhile so-called “scientists” natter on endlessly about their findings on how the now believe they now have evidence that environmental conditions and/or environmental changes contribute to genetic changes in various lifeforms.  Holy crap.  Ecosystems, web of life, hello?  Oh, but the web of life was covered on the first night by the main speaker.  He presented it as a paradox.  He said,

1) we all know everything is connected to everything else.

2) If this were true, evolution would be impossible

3) Therefore we need to understand genetic interactions.

What the…

I have to admit that he lost me on that one.  From an ecological standpoint there can be no evolution without first the premise that everything is interconnected.  What would drive evolution otherwise?  Species evolve according to the stresses or changes in their environment–because there are inherent connections between and among those species and their environment.   It ain’t called the web of life for nothin’.

Then you add onto that cellular knowledge, instinct and intuition—oh and life itself—the unmeasurable aspects to species interactions and behaviors—and, THAT my friends is the great paradox of reductionist thinking in the natural world.  The natural world is the opposite of reductionist, the opposite to compartmentalization.  It is encompassing, it is diverse, it is unpredictable and wild.  It will never conform to the maps and equations and mathematical models that are imposed upon it.  It may tolerate them for a while, but ultimately life will break free of the shackles of human thought limitations and do its thang.  Anyone who doubts this has not been paying attention to the history of the rise and fall of empires throughout human history.  They rise, they devastate or eat up their natural surroundings in the pursuit of their lust for more, more, more.  Then they exceed the limits of their ecological boundaries, cannot adjust, and pass from existence.

Can we, as the present race of dominant humans, change this trajectory?  Can we redirect our meager existences to shift the dominant paradigm to one that is harmonious with, rather than in constant conflict with, the non-dominant-human world?  Now is the time to find out.  There is no time to lose.

As the old Wobbly slogan demands, “Which side are you on?”

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Tuesday Blog Post: To GM Chestnut or not to GM Chestnut, That is the Question

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…

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Filed under GE Trees, Genetic Engineering, Greenwashing, Posts from Anne Petermann

Brazil Tree Biotechnology Conference Post #1

by Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project

After seemingly endless hours in airports and on airplanes, I finally arrived at the Porto Seguro airport in Bahia Brazil, and from there, ferried across to Arraial D’ Ajuda in the state of Bahia, Brazil, where  the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO—pronounced Yew-Fro) is hosting a conference called “Tree Biotechnology 2011” along with co-hosts Embrapa and Veracel.  Veracel is one of the largest timber companies in Brazil—created from a merger of StoraEnso, a very controversial Swedish-Finnish timber company and Fibria, a Brazilian timber firm.

Last night (Sunday) was the official opening of the conference and the keynote speech by Ron Sederoff, a veteran forest geneticist from North Carolina State University.  But before Ron’s speech, the CEO of Veracel presented some background for why the conference was being held in Brazil—the first time the conference had been held in South America.

He started off by impressing the audience with the economic importance of the timber industry in Brazil. He explained it generates US$7.5 billion in exports while still being a “low-carbon activity that generates green jobs.”

Brazil is currently the fourth largest producer of pulp in the world, producing 8% of the global total. China is second at 12% and Canada third at 10%. But the global runaway leader is the United States, at 27% of the global total.

This notorious accomplishment has come at a high price in the US.  One in five acres of the forests of the Southeast have been converted to pine plantations—over 40 million acres.  Nearly 6 million acres in the region are clearcut every year just for paper.  New demands for wood-based bioenergy are expected to result in another 40 million acres of biodiverse forest lost to plantations. Timber plantations also mean toxic chemicals.  Between 1990 and 2000, more chemicals were used on the plantations of the US South than the rest of the world combined, contaminating water and causing illness.

Not to be outdone by the U.S., the Veracel executive explained that he expects production of pulp in Brazil to triple in the next 10 years.

In 2000, he explained, Brazil’s output was 7,200,000 tons, and by 2010 it was almost 9,800,000 tons.  Bahia, the state where Veracel is based and where this conference is being held, produces 2,247,000 of those tons.

Our conference agenda includes a day long field trip to see the wonders of Veracel’s glowingly “green” operations on Wednesday.  That should be interesting indeed.  Their pulp mill is located, according to the CEO “in the middle of the forest,” which, he said, was exactly the idea—to be near the resource base, a “mosaic” of “planted” and “natural” forests.  Of their over 200,000 hectares of forest holdings, he said, 100,000 is “preserved” forest.  I am a bit unclear on how one “preserves” forests in the midst of plantations.  Perhaps in mason jars…

However it is done, Veracel will undoubtedly apply for REDD credits for it (that is credits [i.e. money] for storing carbon under the auspices of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation scheme of the World Bank and UN).  A win-win!  Money for cutting down forests and money for not cutting down forests.  In the words of Tina Vahanen, of the UN REDD Secretariat “REDD will be extremely beneficial for forestry.”

But back to the topic at hand.  What all of these dizzying statistics ultimately mean, is that the area of land covered by tree plantations in Brazil is rapidly expanding.  Where will this expansion take place?  That is a good question.  It will require vast acreages of land. Land will need to be converted from its current form (as forests, agricultural lands, ranch lands) into industrial-scale timber plantations.  In the cases where land that is not forested is used, it will likely result in what is called “indirect land use change,” where the former uses of the land move into and hence destroy biodiverse forests.

But let me make one thing crystal clear.  There is no such thing as a “planted” forest.  There are forests, and there are timber plantations and one bears no resemblance to the other; not ecologically; not in terms of carbon storage capacity (forests are rich in carbon, plantations are not), not for biodiversity, and not for the ability to provide for the needs of forest dependent communities.  Saying a plantation is a forest is like saying a corn field is a prairie.

This intentional confusion causes many problems.  It allows expansion of industrial timber plantations to be called “reforestation” “afforestation” or even “sustainable forest management,” and clouds the ability to determine exactly how much forest is being lost every year.  With the global focus on reducing deforestation as a means to curb climate change, one would think that accurate calculations of forest loss would be important.  Maybe so, but not to the UN or the World Bank—the biggest promoters of REDD.  To add insult to injury, there have even been proposals to “reforest” the Amazon with non-native eucalyptus plantations.

And looming on the horizon, somewhere off in the distance, is the spectre of plantations of genetically engineered trees; trees genetically transformed to make them more easily (and cheaply) manufactured into the product of choice: paper, electricity, liquid fuel, chemicals, plastics, textiles, lumber.  You name it, they’ve got somebody working on GE trees for that exact purpose.

And all of this is sold as “green.”  After all, trees are a “renewable” alternative to fossil fuels!  In fact, in his presentation on what’s coming up in the next few years, our Veracel Executive listed “climate change, the Green Economy” and Rio+20” in the same bullet point.

This is what many environmental, human rights and climate justice organizations have been warning about—that the upcoming conference in Rio de Janiero (in June 2012)—the 20 year follow up to the original “Rio Earth Summit”—will use the ever-worsening climate crisis as the excuse through which to push the so-called “green economy.”  The green economy is merely the same old failed economic system in a pretty new green wrapping and essentially means the commodification of all life on earth in the service of maintaining business as usual for as long as possible beyond all natural limits.

And it was on this note that the conference “Tree Biotechnology 2011” kicked off, here in the state of Bahia, Brazil.

Stay tuned tomorrow for more fun and games.

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