Ed. Note: the term ‘genetically modified’ (GM,) is coined by industry, while the term used by researchers is usually genetically engineered (GE). The terms are used interchangeably in this article.
According to Wikipedia, a genetically modified (GM) tree is one in which “DNA has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. In most cases, the aim is to introduce a novel trait to the plant which does not occur naturally within the species.”
Genetically modified trees are being developed to grow faster and more uniformly, to produce fruit with enhanced properties, or to withstand freezing, insect and viral predation as well as other beneficial traits. Proponents see the social and economic benefits of furthering the development of GM trees, but environmentalists are concerned that the ripple effect of inserting GM organisms into natural environments does not contribute to healthy ecosystems or reforestation. Many see the race to develop GM traits as economically driven, with huge profits to be made by selling the seeds of GM developed trees to commercial producers worldwide, and with little scrutiny given to the long-term environmental, health, economic and social impacts associated with the widespread use of GM organisms.
The World Rainforest Movement, for example, is working with STOP GE Trees to campaign against the expansion of vast industrial tree monocultures, most of which are fast-growing eucalyptus, pine and acacia species, but also rubber and oil palm destined to produce paper, palm oil and rubber products.
In August of 2014, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowed ArborGen, the largest genetically engineered (GE) tree company in the US, to plant 250,000 GE loblolly pines in seven southern states without imposing any regulations on the process. ArborGen is now asking for deregulation in growing Eucalyptus as well. This means no federal oversight, no public input and no risk assessment.
It is difficult to establish just how many GE plantations there are across the US because the information is not available. Locations are considered to be confidential but it is known that Oregon State University, University of Washington and Washington State University have active test plots of GE trees.
A tree plantation is not a forest. Genetically engineered trees can no longer give to the environment what a tree in a natural forest can. GE trees have fewer branches and no undergrowth to provide cooling for the understory and soil surface. The soil around them is unviable for other plants. GE trees do not provide food, nor support biodiversity.
Supporters of the GM tree movement see it as a green solution to help ease the toll that agriculture and industry are having on the planet, but is it a safe solution?
A whole tree that kills bugs and withstands herbicides
One of the aims of GE trees is to enable the entire tree to act as a pesticide – roots, leaves, bark, and pollen. This makes it difficult to assess the scope of the toxin’s effect. It is not only the intended pests that are poisoned – all insects who come into contact with the tree are impacted, including beneficial ones like butterflies and ladybugs. Small animals are also affected by pesticide exposure. And humans can inhale pesticide-laden pollen, which has a stronger affect than eating the GE cells in food because there is less defence from the body (such as gastric juices in the stomach), when inhaled directly into the lungs. The effects of pesticide exposure on humans are complex, and not fully researched or understood.
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a bacteria that produces proteins which are toxic to insects. It’s in the same family of bacteria as B. anthracis, which causes anthrax, and B. cereus, which causes food poisoning. Bt is toxic to many of the insects that can disrupt a farming operation, and is the most widely used biological pesticide in the world. Bt can be applied by spraying on crops or it can be added to the DNA of GE crops, such as GE trees, where it embeds a self-contained pesticide within the crop. If a bug eats corn that contains Bt, the bug dies. In the US, Bt use is widely used on corn, cotton, and potatoes, among other crops, with the reasoning that Bt is a less dangerous alternative to harsh chemical pesticides.
While Bt toxin may be less dangerous than other chemical pesticide, it is still an aggressive, toxic poison. Bt exposure to humans has been linked to gastrointestinal track disorders, lung disease, disoreders with the eye and other organs. Bt toxins have been known to affect humans with symptoms of headache, dizziness, extreme stomach pain, vomiting, and allergies.
Bt also poses environmental threats – when pesticides are applied, evolutionary responses kick in as target organisms develop resistance to the pesticide. There are already ‘super bugs’ that have emerged as ‘Bt toxin-resistant’, and this may lead to the need to use even more toxic chemical pesticides in the future, according to Canadian geneticist David Suzuki.
Trees that are considered to be ‘Roundup Ready’, a term meaning that the tree can be sprayed with large amounts of the herbicide and not be affected, do not seem to reduce the use of toxic herbicides in general, as was the original intention. According to the Pesticides Action Network, farmers have tripled their use of herbicides, knowing their crops are Roundup Ready tolerant.
Bt toxins have been found in both ground water and surface water systems, especially in farming areas where Bt toxin corn has been grown. There have been up to 4-5 times the allowable amount of Bt toxin found in the water systems in those farmland areas.
Do we need weaker trees?
Lignin is the compound found in a tree that gives the tree its rigidity and strength. It is expensive for the pulp and paper industry to remove lignin, and the process requires the use of toxic chemicals. Today, poplar trees are being genetically engineered with the aim of reducing lignin levels in order to make paper production cheaper while reducing chemical inputs.
Lignin reduction, however, leaves the tree weaker and more vulnerable to disease and environmental influences. Trees with reduced lignin store less carbon and decompose more quickly which means they release carbon into the environment at a quicker rate.
GM trees with lower lignin levels may appear to be a green solution since chemical inputs are reduced during processing, but doubts persist when considering the overall environmental consequences, especially when considering that we already have a fungus that breaks down the lignin naturally when the two are mixed together.
Is our knowledge ahead of our wisdom?
According to Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, a biologist and geneticist based in Oxford, UK, it is very difficult for science to understand exactly what is going on in a tree when it is being genetically engineered. She asserts that it is difficult to study even non-GE trees because they are capable of switching on different genes at different times due to developmental processes and environmental conditions, and trees are very slow to grow, so it takes a long time to understand the whole process.
To add to the complications, the process of genetic engineering is not very precise. Dr. Steinbrecher points out that a gene can be inserted into a cell, but there is no control over where the gene will insert itself once it gets into the cell. This results in a random interaction that can have anywhere from 100 -1000 different mutations (Sala et al. 2000. Wong et al. Labra et al. 2001).
“I am convinced,” states Dr. Steinbrecher, “that we do not yet know the consequences and genetic engineering is utterly the wrong direction to go.”
The engineering of sterile trees, meaning they produce no pollen, nectar, fruit, seeds or nuts, is one of the promises of the GE industry to try to ease the fear of cross- contamination with natural forests, but science has not yet found a way to cause reliable sterility.
Dr. Steinbrecher also claims there is reason to believe GE trees can become invasive in the future because they are fortified to survive better than others. Add in the fact that pollen from most poplar species, is very light and can travel hundreds of miles in the wind. There is no way of knowing what kind of cross-contamination has already taken place.
Reduced lignin, killing pests and herbicide tolerance are just a few of the reasons why scientists have decided to put time, money and energy towards genetically engineering trees. Increased terpene storage (causing increased flammability), scent producing trees (for the cosmetic industry), and a non-browning apple (the same affect can come from adding lemon juice to cut apples), are just a few more of the reasons why science has decided to use biotechnology to change our forests.
What you can do today
1. Be informed and involved. There are organizations that can help provide you with the facts about GE trees and possible GE tree planting activity in your area. Here are some you can check out: GMO inquiry, Global Justice Ecology Project, Campaign to Stop GE Trees, and EcoNexus.
2. Give preference to companies that don’t use GE trees. Kinkos is a major consumer of paper in the US, and they have adopted an Endangered Forest policy, meaning they give preference to companies that do not use GE trees. Push your suppliers to adopt similar policies.
3. Support non-GE farmers. Buy food directly from farmers who do not plant GE crops.
4. Ask your government to consider a moratorium on GE tree planting until a thorough risk assessment has been done.
Why the rush?
If a car manufacturer discovers a fault in the functioning of their vehicles, the problem can be narrowed down to a particular make and year and recalls are issued to correct the problem. But trees have very long lifespans, and this enables GE trees to spread their mutated cells into our environment for a very long time. Should it be discovered in years ahead that GE practises are unsafe, what then? We cannot recall every product originating from a tree over such a timespan. It seems more prudent that our forests, our food, and our bodies be protected from further exposure to GE trees until it has been proven to us that they are safe.