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A eucalyptus plantation is seen in São Luis do Paraitinga, Brazil on January 1, 2015.

A eucalyptus plantation is seen in São Luis do Paraitinga, Brazil on January 1, 2015. (Photo: Laurent Guerinaud/AGB Photo Library/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Experts Sound Alarm Over 'Growing Threat' of Genetically Engineered Trees

"Development of genetically engineered trees is advancing despite the serious risks to our forests and continued opposition around the world," said one advocate.

Kenny Stancil

A report published Wednesday exposes the "growing threat" of genetically engineered tree development around the world, with researchers urging a leading forest product certification body to maintain its longstanding ban on genetic modification.

"The convenience of trees that can survive glyphosate will likely result in the use of more glyphosate, more often."

"The global release of genetically engineered (GE or genetically modified) trees is closer than it has ever been," states the report, assembled by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) and the Campaign to STOP GE Trees. "This advancement is a significant concern because the release of GE trees would pose serious threats to forests and other ecosystems, as well as to many local communities and Indigenous peoples. The environmental impacts could be irreversible."

The report documents the status of GE tree development worldwide to identify where the risk of GE tree use on plantations or release into the wild is most immediate. It comes ahead of the Forest Stewardship Council's (FSC) general assembly from October 9-14 in Bali, Indonesia.

The FSC—a nonprofit headquartered in Germany that operates a global market-based certification program for forest products—is currently reconsidering its 27-year ban on GE trees, much to the chagrin of civil society groups around the globe.

As the report notes, the FSC and other so-called "sustainable forest management" organizations that certify products according to their own social and environmental standards are facing pressure from major corporations and university biotechnology researchers to allow GE trees in their certification programs.

Next month in Bali, FSC members will vote on two motions that, if approved, would help preserve the group's prohibition on genetic modification.

However, "if the Forest Stewardship Council decides to embrace genetic engineering, it will free the Brazilian pulp and paper company Suzano to begin planting its eucalyptus trees that are genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate herbicides," warned Lizzie Díaz of the World Rainforest Movement.

To date, the only genetically modified forest tree released commercially was a GE poplar tree in 2002 in China.

Despite opposition from nearly three dozen environmental and social justice groups in Brazil and several others across the world, the Brazilian government approved Suzano's application for a GE glyphosate-tolerant eucalyptus tree last November. As an FSC-certified company, Suzano cannot start commercial planting of its GE tree unless the FSC drops its ban on genetic modification or Suzano leaves the organization.

According to the report:

Suzano claims that this GE eucalyptus "will allow more efficient weed control with lowered chemical load and improved worker conditions." However, this promise was also made by the biotechnology industry for the use of GE herbicide-tolerant crops and it proved false. Herbicide use increased significantly with the use of GE herbicide-tolerant crops in North America and South America. Pesticide use in soybean production in Brazil increased three-fold between 2000 and 2012 after the introduction of GE (Roundup Ready) soy. Official statistics show rates of glyphosate use increased significantly in both Brazil and Argentina where glyphosate-tolerant soy is 85% and 100% of all soy grown respectively.

Glyphosate is used to clear the land of other plants in order to prepare tree plantation sites and it is also applied to new plantations in the first few years of growth. As observed with GE crops, the convenience of trees that can survive glyphosate will likely result in the use of more glyphosate, more often. In the case of eucalyptus plantations, it may also encourage ariel spraying of new plantations where direct spraying of plants on the ground is the current norm.

[...]

Glyphosate is now the most widely used herbicide ingredient in the world. Brazil's health agency, Anvisa, concluded that there are health risks for people exposed to glyphosate when it is applied to crops and stipulated a safe distance be kept from populated areas when using it. This is important because many small communities are surrounded by eucalyptus plantations, just as others are surrounded by GE glyphosate-tolerant soy monocultures. Pesticide use in Brazil with GE soy causes injury to thousands of people each year.

Contrary to claims made by agro-chemical giants, the report finds no evidence that the introduction of genetically modified trees designed to be more productive will lead to land conservation. The further expansion of tree plantations—along with increased social conflict—is the more likely outcome, the authors warn.

"Tree plantations are not forests: they do not support the same biodiversity as forest ecosystems," the report stresses. "They often deplete water resources, degrade and erode soil, and make extensive use of chemical pesticides. The ecological impacts of plantations are felt by local communities, who are often left without livelihoods, food, or water, with little recourse."

"In 2018, more than one thousand women from the rural Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil took over a mill owned by the pulp and paper company Suzano," the report notes. "The women's key grievances included the depletion of critical freshwater resources and the contamination of water by aerial spraying of pesticides on eucalyptus plantations."

Other key findings include:

  • Two other GE trees were granted approval in the U.S. and Brazil—a GE loblolly pine and GE eucalyptus, respectively—in 2015. These have not yet been planted either.
  • There are current open-air field tests of GE trees in a few countries: most are in the U.S. and Brazil but there are also some in Sweden, Finland, Belgium, New Zealand, Canada, India, and Malaysia. The status of field testing in China remains unknown.
  • Most GE tree research is focused on eucalyptus as well as pine and poplar, and is driven by the pursuit of more profitable industrial plantations dedicated to pulp and paper production, timber, and biofuel production.
  • Research is focused on attempts to genetically engineer faster growth; herbicide tolerance; cold and drought tolerance; pest and disease resistance; and altered wood quality.
  • Researchers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) in the U.S. have genetically engineered an American chestnut tree to be blight-tolerant, and are asking the U.S. government to approve it for unrestricted planting in the wild.
  • The risks of releasing GE trees include unwanted GE contamination of our forests and unintended negative impacts on insects, birds, and other organisms in forest ecosystems.

"Development of genetically engineered trees is advancing despite the serious risks to our forests and continued opposition around the world," lead author Lucy Sharratt of CBAN said in a statement. "Our report shows that genetically engineered trees are closer than ever to being released even though interest is limited to just a handful of companies and university researchers."

Nevertheless, "genetically engineered trees are not inevitable," Sharratt continued. "Even if the research is very far advanced, or even approved for planting, GE trees still might never make it to market. Genetic engineering in trees is technically challenging, extremely risky for the environment, and globally, it's very controversial."

The report also points out, however, that "just as the development of GE trees is advancing, government regulation is retreating," thereby increasing the risks that such trees will be released.

"Many national governments are reducing or removing their oversight of the field testing and commercial release of new genetically modified organisms," the authors write. "This report may be the last opportunity to get a snapshot of GE tree field testing around the world."

"The gaps in our understanding of genetic engineering, tree biology, and forest ecology conspire to build a profile of tremendous uncertainty," the report adds. "At the same time, the enormous ability of trees to spread pollen and seeds increases the reach of potential environmental and social impacts across national borders and in violation of Indigenous sovereignty."

"Genetically engineered trees would also perpetuate environmentally and socially destructive industrial plantation production that contributes to the climate crisis," the authors conclude. "Instead of moving towards a climate solution, genetically engineered trees would add unnecessary risks to forests, with possible irreversible impacts."


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