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What’s the Problem With Genetically Engineered Trees?

Multi-billion dollar timber and biotechnology corporations are developing genetically engineered (GE) trees for future production of paper and agrofuels (unsustainably produced biofuels).  Hundreds of outdoor test plots of GE trees have been established in the US and in seventeen countries around the world.

Development of plantations of genetically engineered trees threatens to worsen global warming, destroy native forests, devastate biodiversity and turn forest dependent communities into refugees.

The toxic chemicals sprayed on GE tree plantations, as well as the toxic nature of the trees themselves (which may contain a pesticide) will poison soils and water, and threaten to harm nearby communities.

Already native forests in countries around the world are being destroyed to clear land for large industrial timber plantations.  This process is devastating wildlife and indigenous communities as well as releasing huge quantities of greenhouse gases.

As a result, people around the world are coming together to oppose large-scale tree plantations and genetically engineered trees.

Due to this rising resistance to GE trees, industry is now attempting to “sell” them as a source for supposedly “green” biofuels.

The coming years are critical for the STOP GE Trees Campaign.  ArborGen, the world’s largest GE tree research and development company, announced in April 2007 that they are within a year or two of releasing a commercial GE tree product in the US South or Brazil. ArborGen is a joint partnership between pulp and paper giants International Paper, MeadWestvaco and Rubicon.

Both the Southern US and Brazil are being looked at to host huge plantations of GE trees.  The US state of Georgia claims they want to be the Saudi Arabia of biofuels, using their pine plantations as the resource. This rapidly escalating demand for wood will drive the further decimation of the world’s native forests.

One of the trees being engineered for biofuels and paper pulp is the highly invasive eucalyptus. ArborGen has engineered the eucalyptus to be cold tolerant, which will greatly expand its potential range.  As people in Brazil and South Africa already know, eucalyptus rapidly colonizes other ecosystems and is almost impossible to get rid of.  In South Africa eucalyptus plantations have been given the nickname ‘Green Cancer.’

In Brazil, Chile and South Africa, plantations of non-native eucalyptus plantations have wrought havoc.  They have displaced entire indigenous communities from their ancestral lands, driven out native wildlife, and depleted soils and groundwater.  In Brazil, eucalyptus plantations are called the Green Desert and in Chile they are called Green Soldiers (because they stand in straight lines and advance destructively, killing everything in their path.

Industry is also genetically engineering reduced lignin loblolly pine and poplar trees.  While industry believes trees engineered for reduced lignin will be cheaper to manufacture into paper, low-lignin trees are also more susceptible to disease and insects.  This means GE tree plantations would likely require toxic chemical pesticides that would contaminate soils and ground water.  Low-lignin trees also rot more quickly, releasing CO2, a major greenhouse gas.  Escape of the low-lignin trait into forests would lead to increased forest mortality as contaminated trees would die more easily.

Trees are also being engineered to kill insects with the bacterial toxin Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).  Bt kills both beneficial and pest insects, and harms wildlife that feeds on those insects, such as songbirds.  Pest insects can become immune to the toxin rapidly, forcing applications of increasingly toxic chemical pesticides. Bt exudes through the roots, disrupting soil ecology.  Also, some physicians believe that inhalation of Bt pollen may cause allergic and immune system reactions in humans.

Herbicide resistant trees tolerate Monsanto’s RoundUp—a glyphosate-based herbicide connected to cancers and miscarriages.  This will result in huge increases in the amount of RoundUp used, contaminating water and soils.

Trees live for decades and pollinate for hundreds of miles. Contamination of native forests with GE tree pollen or seeds will devastate ecosystems and biodiversity. Once contamination begins, it cannot be stopped.  GE trees will contaminate native forests, which themselves will become contaminants in a never-ending cycle.

Researchers at Duke University created pollen drift models that show pollen from Southeast forests being carried by wind currents up the east coast and into Canada for more than 1,200 kilometers.   With potential for pollen spreading this extensively, it is imperative that GE trees not be released.

So what is Global Justice Ecology Project doing about it?

Global Justice Ecology Project co-founders Orin Langelle and Anne Petermann have been working toward a global ban on GE trees since 1999, launching the first effort against GE trees in June of 2000.

In January 2004 Global Justice Ecology Project co-founded the STOP GE Trees Campaign with 13 organizations from across North America, including Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, Dogwood Alliance, and many others.

Today Global Justice Ecology Project coordinates the international work of the STOP GE Trees Campaign.   We work with indigenous and local communities, grassroots organizations, large national and international organizations, scientists, foresters, and others to eliminate the threat of GE trees.  Our partners in this campaign are located on worldwide in regions where this technology is a threat.

The goal of the campaign is a global ban the release of GE trees into the environment.

To achieve this goal, we also work with various UN bodies including the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Forum on Forests and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.