Corporations stealthily introduced genetically engineered (GE) foods into agriculture and supermarkets in the past decade, and consumers rebelled. Less publicized, however, are GE trees, which are in the early stage of development, mostly at corporate and university research plots. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which requires permits for testing and releasing GE trees, has already approved at least 124 open air field tests GE trees (“Biotech tree tests rooted in caution,” by Mike Toner; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 4/25/05. Dr. Claire Williams, who organized a 2004 conference on GE conifers at Duke University, noted that the number of field trials of transgenic Pinus taeda (loblolly pine) in the southeastern United States is increasing annually, “although no commercial transgenic plantations exist yet.” (“Landscapes, Genomics & Transgenic Conifer Forests,” forum report, Nov. 17-19, 2004)
Renowned scientist and ecologist Dr. David Suzuki says that “it is difficult to obtain reliable reports on the commercial use of transgenic trees and as such it is unknown whether this has yet occurred. Rumors exist that commercial release has occurred on a relatively large scale in China, but these are yet to be confirmed. There are indicators, however, of the intention and determination to increase the scale of transgenic tree use. One such indicator is the partnerships being formed between biotechnology companies and the forest industry. The large numbers of field trials also suggest the intention to commence commercial establishment of genetically altered trees.” (“What are Transgenic Trees?” www.davidsuzuki.org/Forests/default.asp)
What’s Being Engineered and What Are the Threats?
Trees are being engineered to tolerate Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide; for insecticide production with genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensus (Bt); for decreased lignin content; for fast, uniform growth; for growth in unfavorable soils; and for sterility.
Herbicide-resistant trees are designed for plantations where herbicides eliminate competing undergrowth. (The GE trees themselves resist the herbicide.) No one knows how Bt-trees may affect forest ecosystems (including soil organisms), but Bt corn can affect nontarget species. Anne Petermann of the Global Justice Ecology Project says that the presence of Bt in forests “could impact nutrient cycling and uptake, soil microbes and pathogens and other little-understood soil processes,” create “super-pests” that resist Bt, and/or harm beneficial insects. These potential effects could spread if Bt trees cross pollinate with native trees or disperse their seeds.
Lignin content is being decreased in some GE trees to cut papermaking costs, because lignin must be removed from wood pulp to make paper. Suzuki (cited above) says, “the reduction of lignin content, or altering of lignin chemistry, may have unintended side effects, which could impact tree fitness.” He notes that genes that control lignin synthesis also influence winter survival. Also, because lignin gives trees rigidity, trees with less lignin could be more susceptible to blowing down. Karen Charman of the World Watch Institute adds, “Studies have linked high lignin content with greater resistance to diseases and pests, suggesting that weakening this trait could make trees more vulnerable to these threats.” (World Watch Magazine, May/June 2005)
Scientists claim that efforts to make GE trees sterile will prevent contamination of natural, wild trees. Yet trees spend nearly 25% of their energy on reproduction (making flowers, seeds and seed-containing structures). Engineering sterility redirects energy from reproductive to vegetative growth, so sterility should actually benefit the GE industry by making trees grow faster. Yet, sterile plantations would not support wildlife that depends on flowering trees for food.
Sterility in GE trees cannot be guaranteed, because stresses can silence genes. If an engineered gene for sterility is silenced, a tree will be fertile, and one fertile GE tree could contaminate native forests. Researchers at Duke University found that some trees can spread pollen for up to 1,000 miles (www.mindfully.org/GE/2005/China-Transgenic-Poplars10mar05.htm). If GE trees invade natural forests, they may outcompete native trees because of their ability to grow taller and quicker.
A 2001 conference sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trust, entitled “Biotech Branches Out: A Look at the Opportunities and Impacts of Forest Biotechnology” (www.pewagbiotech.org/events/1204/branch-summary.pdf), examined the issues above and added that trees are being engineered for improved wood quality and increased wood production (thus, theoretically, reducing pressure on natural forests); resistance to chestnut blight and other diseases; absorbing hazardous waste; and as a source for new feed and pharmaceuticals.
But conference participants were concerned with risks already noted in this article, as well as long-term environmental impacts because of the long lifespan of trees. They also noted the difficulty of tracking “escapes” and reversing potential damage; difficulty predicting consequences for complex ecosystems; altering the aesthetics of forests; clashing with the cultural need for natural forests; consumer concerns; and the potential of GE trees to foster inequities between large and small landowners. Engineering trees to produce novel pharmaceuticals or chemicals makes potential risks especially important to consider.
At the Pew conference, Dan Botkin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, asked why we should “jump straight to new, unproven technologies when we have not exhausted lower-risk methods of achieving the same ends?” (Drs. Michael Greenwood and Jody Jellison make this point in their University of Maine white paper, “Genetic Engineering in Forestry”. “We have only started to probe the natural variation that is still present in our forest,” they write. “In addition, fast-growing families of our native species have been produced by conventional breeding methods that can greatly increase wood production.”)
Also at the Pew conference, Steve Harrington of the Forest Stewards Guild asked, “if our predominant forest management strategies are causing a problem, might we not change those, rather than inventing a silver bullet to deal with them?” (Due to potential risks, the Forest Stewardship Council will not certify forests that contain GE trees.) David Brooks of the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station said that forestry techniques have already increased tree growth so that more than enough timber seems to be available in the United States for some time to come.
Another conference participant, Conner Bailey of Auburn University, sees GE trees as accelerating the trend toward consolidating control over rural forest plantations into the hands of a few companies. As those companies acquire proprietary rights to genetic material and increase their landholdings used for intensive tree production, many rural, private foresters who manage small holdings will be marginalized. He also noted that pine plantations in Alabama are already managed in a way that has made them “relatively devoid of wildlife,” and he worries that GE plantations would be even closer to being sterile. (Dr. Claire Williams, cited previously, echoed these concerns in summarizing the 2004 conference at Duke University: “Benefits of improved wood quality from transgenic conifer forests, if any, will accrue to corporate shareholders but ecological risks, if any, will be shared by all citizens.”)
Another question about GE trees is: If their pollen and/or seed spreads to a landowner’s forest, will the company that patented the GE trees be able to sue the landowner for patent infringement, or claim ownership of rogue GE trees, as has happened with GE food crops that have grown where they were not planted?
Work by Dr. Richard Meagher of the University of Georgia highlights some problems with planting GE trees in the open. Meagher engineered eastern cottonwoods to remove mercury from contaminated soils. Several were planted at the site of an old hat manufacturing factory in Danbury, Conn., in 2003. The trees release some of the mercury they take up into the atmosphere; more will be released when the trees are harvested and incinerated. Danbury residents who suffered the “Danbury Shakes” due to neurological damage caused by mercury may benefit from this “dilution solution,” but does spreading a once concentrated neurological toxin over a wider area make sense? (See “Turning Genetically Engineered Trees Into Toxic Avengers,” by Hillary Rosner, The New York Times, Aug. 3, 2004; at www.organicconsumers.org/ge/cottonwood080404.cfm)
Threats to Maine’s Apple Orchards?
Cornell University has researched GE apple trees for characteristics such as disease resistance and altered ripening, says Neil Carman of the Sierra Club. (www.dellanatura.com/news_trees.asp) If GE apple trees were commercialized, they could ruin the non-GE apple industry, as GE papaya in Hawaii ruined many non-GE papaya farmers there. Organic farmers in Hawaii had to cut down their papaya plants because of contamination by “Sun Ups” GE papaya – which were then rejected by overseas markets, leading to serious economic losses for farmers. (www.higean.org/archinvednews.htm)
Leslie Cummins, co-owner of Five Star Nursery in Brooklin, Maine, says, “Maine has a very strong heirloom movement for apples. If they were contaminated it would destroy a burgeoning industry. If my neighbor planted one of these trees, it would be disaster for my orchards due to pollen drift and pollen carried by bees.”
Some researchers seem to be listening. Prof. Herb Aldwinckle of Cornell writes (at www.nysaes.cornell.edu/pp/faculty/aldwinckle/) : “My lab has successfully transformed several apple genotypes to increase resistance to fire blight, at first with genes from other organisms, and recently by altering expression of apple genes. This latter approach is likely to be more acceptable to regulatory agencies, apple growers, and consumers.”
If GE trees spread, natural forests could turn into barren monocultures, even worse than the plantation forests that are rapidly springing up in the global South under the guise of offsetting carbon. Carbon offset forestry allows polluting corporations to invest in tree plantations rather than reduce toxic emissions. The plantations theoretically reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Corporations from wealthy Northern nations target the cheapest land, home to the poorest populations, for these plantations, displacing local communities that rely upon the land for their livelihoods.
The Kyoto Protocol’s “Clean Development Mechanism” promotes such industrial forestry by allowing industrialized countries to invest in projects in the South, which are supposed to store carbon, thereby gaining credits allowing further emissions. In 2003, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change decided to permit GE trees in these “carbon sinks” in the South. This decision encourages corporations and Northern governments to take over land in such countries as Brazil and Indonesia and plant them with GE trees. To date, no such GE plantations exist; but if planted, the would not be diverse forest ecosystems but more like rows of corn, weeded with herbicides. Since trees are engineered to mature quickly, GE plantations may have higher priority than those of slow-growing, traditional forests.
Will these plantations actually slow climate change? A 1995 study by the World Resources Institute and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that tree plantations in tropical areas can store only one-fourth as much carbon as native forests. Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy Brookhaven National Laboratory found that diverse plant ecosystems absorb far more CO2 and nitrogen than monocultures. (www.wrm.org.uy/) Supporters of GE trees claim that GE plantations will grow faster, and thus absorb carbon faster. However, the Center for International Forestry Research found that tree plantations (especially of conifers) are more susceptible to forest fires, which release tons of carbon into the environment. (www.cifor.cgiar.org/docs/_pf/1/_ref/findoutabout/fire/)
Who’s Minding the Hen House?
As with GE food crops, three agencies regulate GE trees, according to the Pew-sponsored conference: The USDA, through its Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), looks at GE trees that pose plant pest issues; EPA regulates trees engineered for pest resistance and for cleaning up toxic waste; and FDA would regulate GE trees that produce food, feed, pharmaceuticals or cosmetics. These federal agencies, said Sharon Friedman of the USDA Forest Service (at the Pew conference), generally don’t consider social and cultural concerns, such as preserving natural forests. Attorney Peter Jenkins (also at the Pew conference) said that APHIS should comprehensively regulate all GE trees and require environmental impact statements for any proposed field releases of GE trees.
In summarizing the 2005 Duke U. conference, Dr. Claire Williams (cited previously) wrote: “Transgenic conifers bring a special set of challenges which has no parallel among transgenic food crops. No regulatory agency is prepared to cope with the oversight of transgenic organisms which can disperse its pollen and seeds on a scale of kilometers, for ten or more years prior to harvest.” She noted that British Columbia and Alberta have 10-year moratoria on transgenic tree field planting.
Threats to Maine’s Forests
Corporations have long controlled Maine’s forests to produce paper and lumber, and GE trees could continue or expand such exploitation. Many of the trees being engineered are pulp and paper species such as poplar, pine and larch– all suited to Maine’s climate. Although the dominance of the paper industry in Maine has receded in the past decade as corporations moved to southeastern states and abroad, 12 major paper mills still exist in Maine, and the state will continue to be a big paper producer. Nearly 10 million acres of Maine’s forests are in industrial, corporate or big family ownership.
Canadian-based J.D. Irving Limited, Maine’s largest landowner, manages over 1,500,000 acres of Maine’s forest and has created plantations in Maine consisting solely of white, black and Norway spruce, the latter native to Europe. These plantations are maintained using pesticides, including six prohibited under FSC guidelines. (www.sierraclub.ca/national/media/fsc-cert-concerns-00-01-21.html)
In the past Irving has collaborated with the Canadian company BC Research Inc. and the Canadian Forest Service (CFS – the first organization to produce GE black spruce and larch) to engineer spruce trees to produce the Bt toxin. Irving spokesperson Mary Keith told me in an e-mail that Irving is no longer involved in GE tree research.
Researcher Armand Séguin of the CFS claims that the future application of these “elite trees” could be intensively managed transgenic tree plantations for the pulp and paper industry. (Canadian Forest Service, “Building a Better Tree,” in Solutions, Spring-Summer 1999)
Other major players in Maine’s forest industry have demonstrated interest in GE trees, including International Paper and MeadWestvaco. In 1999, these two multinationals, with help from Monsanto, started the $60 million business venture ArborGen, based in South Carolina, to research and commercialize GE trees. (www.arborgen.com) Mead and International Paper recently sold most of their landholdings in Maine, but both still own paper mills here.
Universities research GE trees, as well. Washington State, Oregon State and Western State University in California are conducting open-air field trials of GE trees in the Northwest. Grants from the Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the EPA, as well as from biotech and timber corporations, help fund such research. (www.nwrage.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=10&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0)
The College of Natural Resources, Forestry and Agriculture at the University of Maine receives much of its funding from the forest industry. According to the Cooperative Forestry Research Unit’s 2004 annual report, the forest industry donated nearly $300,000 to the University, including over $75,000 from Irving. In an e-mail message, Dr. Michael Greenwood told The MOF&G that no work on inserting genes into trees using GE methods has been done at UM in the lab or in the field. Although he believes that engineering the Bt gene into white pines could “be a boon for weevil resistance,” he adds, “We have no plans to insert foreign genes, such as Bt, into white pine, since the occurrence of natural resistance in some wild genotypes is very likely.”
How to Resist GE Trees
Because GE trees have yet to be commercialized, we have a tremendous opportunity to stop this threat to our forests and to the biodiversity of our planet. Just as farmers are pledging not to raise GE food crops or animals, they can pledge not to plant GE trees. Nationally, the Stop GE Trees Campaign, a coalition of groups such as the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, the Global Justice Ecology Project and others, is calling for a ban on the release of GE trees into the environment, including removal of all field releases of GE forest plants. (See www.organicconsumers.org/ge/getrees31105.cfm) In Maine, GE Free Maine (www.gefreemaine.org) is highlighting the issues that GE trees pose to loggers, landowners and forests, aiming to halt the introduction of GE trees into our state.
Letters, articles, conferences and demonstrations can alert corporations, investors, institutions and universities about the concern of the public. Consumers can refuse to buy products from corporations that are pursuing GE forestry. For example, in 2003, due to pressure from a campaign run by Vermont-based Action for Social & Ecological Justice, Kinkos, the photocopy giant, announced that it would not do business with suppliers who use GE trees. (www.organicconsumers.org/ge/kinkos032103.cfm)
A successful campaign must also present alternatives. Sustainable, low-impact forestry must be supported, and demand for paper and wood products can be reduced by reducing our paper use, recycling and promoting substitutes, such as paper made from hemp and kenaf, where appropriate.
About the author: Jacob Mentlik is a farmer and activist living in Portland, Maine.
Jean English contributed to this article.