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The next GM threat: Frankenstein forests

Signed editorial by Hugh Warwick: The Ecologist Volume 29 Number 4, July 1999. Hugh Warwick is a freelance journalist and editor of Splice, the magazine of the Genetics Forum.

It had to happen: geneticists are turning their attention to trees. After all, compared to domestic flora and agricultural crops, trees are still largely untouched, so there is a great deal of room for 'improvement'. For example, while it has taken some 5,000 generations of traditional breeding to turn teosinte into maize, even the most altered trees lag some 4,996 generations behind. So imagine what a few decades of genetic tinkering could achieve...

Drawing: mystic tree.

Prometheus, having received the gift of knowledge from the gods, attempted to improve upon their work.

But this is not something new. While newspapers have been full to bursting with the GM food furore, the new wave of 'foresters' have been quietly getting on with the business of preparing for the greatest ever change to our planet's trees. And it has gone way beyond the laboratory. There is already at least one test plot in the UK, there are the early stages of plantations in China and Brazil, and test plots in Belgium, France, Spain, US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia.

As the environmental movement wakes up to the coming threat of GM trees, it will see a potential disaster on the same scale as the recent introduction of GM crops.

So what can we expect if the future unfolds as the biotechnologists predict? Already they are working on speeding up the time it takes trees to reach maturity.

Their slow growth rate has always been one of the stumbling blocks in any attempts to domesticate the tree. Achievements in traditional plant breeding have brought the rotation time for eucalyptus down from 15 to seven years. The geneticists hope to halve this again.

Then, of course, there are the better-known types of genetic tinkering: engineering herbicide tolerant trees, for example, and instilling an ability to produce pesticides, to be protected by terminator technology. But serious questions are already being asked. Will there be safeguards against the cross-pollination of engineered trees with their wild relatives? If terminator technology is not employed, how will the many and ingenious techniques that trees have evolved to spread themselves be contained? And what will the impact of genetically-modified plantations be on neighbouring forests? Will disenchanted insects just move onto the easier prey of un-engineered trees?

Some of the most sophisticated work is concentrated on altering the lignin content of trees. Lignin is the component in the cell wall that gives a tree the rigidity and toughness needed to withstand environmental stresses. It is also something that needs to be removed in the process of making pulp for paper. This part of the paper-making process is one of the most expensive in terms of energy and pollution, so engineering trees with less lignin could even carry with it environmental benefits. But many balk at the idea of industry tailoring the living tree to the needs of the end product: and I still have the alarming vision of what one campaigner described as 'wobbly trees'.

And, as with any biotechnology development, there are serious impacts for the environment. Even after a tree dies, it plays a role as an ecosystem in itself, forming a three dimensional structure for a myriad of micro-beasties. The lignin content of the wood slows the rotting process, and thereby increases the length of time it can maintain this vital role. It is also worth bearing in mind that lignin plays an important role in the tree's defences against herbivores - it makes the plant harder to digest. Will this mean that low-lignin trees become fast food?

The longevity of trees leads to all sorts of questions about their interaction with the environment. For example, the basic ecology of traditional forests - in particular the soil interactions - are very poorly understood. How will an altered tree further affect the environment? A field of maize is in the ground for one season. Even the fastest growing trees count their lives in years and may still take decades to reach maturity.

And this raises one of the key concerns. It is well recognised that the results of the technology that creates GM organisms are fragile. And one of the factors affecting this fragility is the stress the organism is placed under. Trees, many of which need to survive 30-80 years, are going to be exposed to the stresses and strains of the environment on a far greater scale than any crop, with unknown results.

The Concerns arising about GM trees are heightened by the ubiquity of wood products. As the forestry industry is keen to remind us, trees, and their products, surround us every day of our lives. There are many edible tree products, such a fruit and nuts which will raise the same health concerns as are currently being expressed about GM crops. Already there is a test field site of GM oranges in Valencia, Spain, and there are tests underway on papaya and walnuts in the US.

Another reason for concern was high-lighted by the announcement on April 6th 1999, that Fletcher Challenge Forests, International Paper, Monsanto and the Westvaco Corporation are entering a "Forest Biotechnology Joint Venture to produce and market tree seedlings that will improve forest health and productivity for the forest market worldwide." The four companies will contribute $60 million over five years to the joint venture. They will be working with the Genesis Research and Development Corporation Limited, a New Zealand biotechnology research company. The joint venture will also acquire forestry intellectual property from Genesis.

None of the participating investors have a particularly good environmental record, and the details of the joint venture should give more cause for concern. The stated aim is to make the improvements for the 'forest market'. There is not even a pretence at trying to improve the lot of people already affected by industrial tree plantations. And the focus for the research will initially be to develop eucalyptus and poplar species, Radiata pine, loblolly pine and sweetgum, all principal components of the pulp industry.

When the issue of forest biotechnology is looked at closely, it also becomes obvious that many of the most significant social and environmental problems besetting countries in the South can be linked to the rise of biotech trees. 'Traditional' intensive forestry has been having an impact on the lives of local people for decades, and the spectre of GM trees will make the problems worse rather than solve them. Industrial tree plantations are already responsible for taking the place of forests and local people's land. These monocultures can never replace the value of forest that has been removed. They are planted with the simple goal of filling the insatiable need for pulp.

There may be some GM-tree applications that could be of benefit to the poorer people of the world. For example, it is possible to increase the calorific value of wood so that it generates more heat when burnt; this is highly significant as it is estimated that some 55 per cent of global wood production is purely used for energy. But, as with GM crops, the technology is expensive, and it is unlikely that the results of the research will be given away. As ever, the issue of who controls the technology arises - and while global corporations control it in the interests of their profit margins, it is unlikely that any possible beneficial applications of GM technology on trees will be used.

It is not just the pulp and paper industry that will reap benefits from the spread of GM trees: some other key investors are oil and automotive corporations. The Kyoto Climate Change Convention implies that the more trees you plant into the ground, the more oil you can take out of it. Under this logic, planting fast growing trees will allow oil companies to exploit oil reserves all the quicker and ease any 'carbon debts' run up by the car manufacturers as the roads gridlock.

But the most alarming connection that emerges from this biotech vision is its relationship with international trade rules. Come November, as the Millennium Round of the WTO meets in Seattle, many of the most vital regulations designed to protect the environment from the ravages of neo-liberalism will be under attack. For example, if the recent Global Free Logging Agreement is ratified, perceived barriers to free trade, such as national safeguards against the introduction of GM trees or invasive plant species will be outlawed. It will also make it easier for more land to be accessed by GM plantations. And it could see the demise of labelling initiatives such as the Forest Stewardship Council, which included in its founding principles the statement that the "use of genetically modified organisms shall be prohibited". While this passed by with little comment in 1994, it now seems prescient.

The first commercial plantations of GM trees have yet to get going. But if and when they do, they will herald a quantum leap in our relationship with trees. And the issues raised are far greater than just the trees themselves. The way that timber and pulp are produced around the world already raises many important ecological and social concerns and the arrival of a genetic component to this will not make these problems go away. Instead, the arrival of GM technology in our forests will just add yet more pressure to an already fragile world.

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