Published on Friday, May 5, 2000 by InterPress Service
New Campaign Targets Biotech Trees
by Danielle Knight
WASHINGTON - May 4 - Following the outcries against
genetically engineered crops, environmental groups are beginning
to take aim at plans underway to alter the genes of trees grown
for pulp and paper products.
While forest-related biotech research is still in its infancy compared with that taking place in agriculture, field trials of GM trees have proliferated around the world during the second half of the 1990s.
Now environmentalists are starting to pay attention to research links made between large biotechnology companies and the paper and pulp industry to develop faster growing trees that could be designed to work together with herbicides.
Ecologists worry that the drive for profit is causing these companies to overlook the overall impact genetically modified trees could have on the complex workings of ecosystems.
The economic incentive for these companies to produce trees more quickly cannot be overemphasised, say groups which estimate the value of the world's total annual timber harvest is in excess of 400 billion dollars.
Environmentalists fear, for example, that new GM traits - such as herbicide resistance - could possibly spread to other trees through cross fertilisation. This could cause certain trees to take over ecosystems and cause other native species to go extinct.
''We feel that this is a very dangerous trend in industrial forestry and a real threat to bio-diversity, forest ecosystems and the planet,'' says Patrick Reinsborough, outreach co-ordinator for the California-based Rainforest Action Network.
Last April, Monsanto Company (expected to merge with Pharmacia Upjohn), hooked up with International Paper, Westvaco Corporation (both based in New York) and the New Zealand-based Fletcher Challenge Forests to form a forestry biotechnology joint venture.
The four companies will contribute 60 million dollars over five years to produce and market tree seedlings that they say will improve forest health and productivity.
Researchers will focus on altering the genetic traits of tree species commonly planted by the forest industry worldwide, such as eucalyptus, poplar, radiata pine, loblolly pine and sweetgum trees, say the companies.
Besides increasing the growth rates of tree, they plan to also focus on making these trees tolerant to certain herbicides, much like Monsanto's 'Round-up Ready' soy beans which are genetically designed to survive sprayings of an herbicide it manufactures.
They say they will also aim to improve the fibre quality and uniformity to increase efficiency in paper and wood products manufacturing processes.
''Increasing the productivity of tree plantations safely and sustainably will help meet the world's wood and fibre needs without increasing pressure on native forests,'' says a statement released by Westvaco.
But environmental groups say that just like biologically modified corn and soy, not all the possible impacts of genetically altering trees have been adequately studied and tested.
''The use of genetically engineered trees intensifies the many concerns about the use of genetically engineered crops,'' says Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense, a Washington-based group critical of the technology.
Since trees grown uniformly on plantations for paper and pulp are often nearby natural native forests, environmentalists fear that cross pollination will be very likely.
Goldburg says that pollen from trees are known to travel great distances by the wind.
''Buffer zones'' of 50 or so metres - intended to shield traditional crops and native trees from genetically modified pollen - as advocated by biotech companies are inadequate given that pollen from some pine trees have been known to travel hundreds of kilometres, she says.
One of the proposed gene altering strategies to increase tree growth rates involves shutting off the tree's ability to reproduce so that all the organism's energy goes towards development instead of fertility. If traits affecting reproduction escape to wild trees whole species could be jeopardised, warn groups.
''The risks of genetic pollution in our remaining native forests are irreversible and potentially one of the greatest threats to bio-diversity ever,'' says Mick Petrie, a campaigner with the Native Forest Network (NFN), an advocacy group based in the state of Vermont.
According to NFN, companies can now alter trees to substantially reduce lignin, a component of the cell walls in trees and other plants that is essential for the structure of the plant, aiding in strength and vascular functions.
Pulp and paper companies must remove the lignin from wood pulp to make paper. But now researchers have devised a way to genetically disrupt a tree's production of lignin.
''The actual processes that form lignin are poorly understood, and how diminished production of essential enzymes within may affect other functions is unknown,'' says NFN, in a recent newsletter to its members. Because lignin is essential to a tree's strength, lowering lignin could adversely affect a tree's ability to withstand wind without damage, says the group.
''Escape of low-lignin genes into the wild is a significant worry, and could have devastating consequences on native forests,'' it says.The altering of lignin production underlies that more research is required to fill gaps in the understanding of tree biology and ecology, say environmentalists.
Trees are very complex organisms. Recent studies, for example, revealed that some trees, when attacked by caterpillars, release a chemical warning to surrounding trees, which alter the chemical structure of their leaves to be unappealing to the caterpillars.
''How will altering gene codes affect these and other little understood behaviours? '' asks NFN.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says that trees - unlike crops - can take up to hundreds of years to fully mature and are therefore subject to a much wider range of environmental stresses, and these stresses can in turn affect the behaviour of the modified genome.
''At present, nobody can confidently quantify the environmental risks surrounding genetically modified trees,'' the group says in a report on genetically modified trees published last year.
Given all of the unknowns, WWF is urging governments to declare a moratorium on the commercial release of GM trees and encouraging the industrial forest sector to do the same voluntarily.
While calling for government regulators of biotechnology to better consult with environmental organisations, WWF is also prodding the paper and biotechnology industries to redesign field trials to examine broader environmental impacts.
''Any decision as to whether biotechnology has a role in commercial forestry should only be made once the risks involved are properly identified and quantified,'' says WWF.
Copyright 2000 InterPress Service