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The threat of GM trees

The threat of GM trees

by Silvia Ribeiro, La Jornada, Rebelión, 03-03-2008

While genetically manipulated crops carry on being the subject of vigorous polemics and resistance around the world as more and more data is gathered on contamination, yield failures, increased use of agro-poisons and impacts on health and the environment, new threats are looming with growing pressure from companies to introduce GM trees. The principal motive of the industries concerned is to produce raw material more cheaply for paper and celluose for ethanol at the cost of increasing the harsh effects of forestry monoculture on the environment, on forests, on indigenous and afro-descendant communities and on rural families.

Faced with this pressure and considering the potential effects on biodiversity, the Eighth Conference of Parties to the Agreement on Biological Diversity, meeting in Brazil in March 2006, resolved to invite countries "to apply a precautionary focus to the use of genetically modified trees". Despite the timidity of the resolution, it was enough for the industry to mobilise all its guns so as to prevent the Agreement by all means possible from reaching a tougher recommendation at its next meeting in May this year in Bonn, Germany. But civil society organizations around the world are mobilising actively as well. At the meeting of the technical advisory body of the ABD which just met in Rome in mid-February, 138 organizations including environmentalists, rural workers, indigenous peoples and others from countries where research is carried out into GM trees signed an open letter in which they stated their main concerns.

In the first place, they explain, this type of research is carried out "to consolidate and expand a model of tree monoculture which has already been shown to have grave social and environmental impacts in many of our countries." They go on to analyse the effects caused by the various types of research under way.

Research into faster growing trees means a greater absorption of nutrients from the soil, exhausting them more rapidly and at the same time an even more serious impact on water than that already shown to be caused by tree monoculture. Research into trees manipulated genetically to resist low temperatures, with the aim of moving forests into colder and higher mountain areas, will erode new ecosystems and the sustenance of communities that have still not been affected by the current monocultures. Trees with insecticide properties could result in the mortality of other non-targetted insect species with the consequent impacts on food chains of local fauna. Weedkiller resistant trees signify even greater social and environmental impacts, destroying local flora and fauna and affecting the health of local people both in the planting area and further afield, because fumigation is necessarily airborne. Finally the signatory organizations argue that trees genetically manipulated to facilitate processing cellulose with a lower lignine content - a component that gives trees their structural force - will create weak, illness-prone trees, making them more susceptible to serious ambient damage from storms and ever more extreme climatic phenomena.

To all this one has to add the fact that GM contamination produced by tree pollen can cover hundreds of kilometres and affect natural forests since, unlike agricultural crops that are planted for one season, trees go on releasing pollen for decades or centuries. For this reason it makes no sense (in terms of common sense, rather than the profit-driven logic of the companies) to "experiment" with GM trees since contamination would be of such an extreme range that even the researchers themselves suggest the impossibility of trying to do environmental impact studies, since the area to be covered would be impossibly large.

But, by the perverse logic of the companies, this problem can be solved by adding "Terminator" genes to these trees so that their seeds would be sterile. Doing so would implicitly "legitimize" this suicide technology, opening the door to its application to crop seeds as well. Scientists like Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher have shown that if in agricultural crops such technology never works completely (therefore adding the problem of sterility to the problem of contamination) in trees it would be even more risk-fraught because no one can forsee the metabolic and mutational changes a tree might suffer over its life as a result of climate change or change in the soil or the ecosystem, thus making completely unpredictable how these genetic constructs would show up in the trees.

Perhaps the most paradoxical thing about this new threat that the plant and biotechnology industries want to impose on us is that more than 75% of the paper produced by these trees will be for packaging and advertising for multinational company chains that would be unnecessary with support for food sovereignty and local decentralized consumption. This issue will be covered in a further article.


Silvia Ribeiro is a researcher for Grupo ETC.

(The letter mentioned in the article and other documents are available at the site of the World Forests Movement's site -

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