Five organizations released a letter in early October 2012 to the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity demanding a global ban on genetically modified (GM) trees. World Rainforest Movement, Global Justice Ecology Project, the Campaign to Stop Genetically Engineered Trees, Global Forest Coalition, and Biofuelwatch oppose the potentially damaging impact of GM trees on the environment and Indigenous communities.
“The forestry industry is involved in developing GM trees for use in its industrial plantations, in order to achieve trees that can grow faster, have reduced lignin content for production of paper or agrofuels, are insect or herbicide resistant, or can grow in colder temperatures,” stated Isis Alvarez of Global Forest Coalition. “This research is aimed at increasing their own profits while exacerbating the already known and very serious impacts of large scale tree plantations on local communities and biodiversity.”
According to a 2012 report by Global Justice Ecology Project, GM trees pose “significant risks” to carbon-absorbing forest ecosystems and the global climate. Trees with less lignin would be more prone to pest attacks and would rot more quickly, altering soil structure and releasing greenhouse gases more quickly. Other dangers range from increased “flammability, to invasiveness, to the potential to contaminate native forests with engineered traits.”According to the Sierra Club, “the possibility that the new genes spliced into GE trees will interfere with natural forests isn’t a hypothetical risk but a certainty.” The substitution of natural forests by GM monocultures for industrial use would also threaten biodiversity, in the same way that oil palm plantations do today. Many of these consequences would impact Indigenous communities, reducing the ecosystem services that they rely on for their livelihoods and survival.
Despite these risks, several GM tree projects are moving forward. The GM tree research and development company ArborGen has a request pending with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to sell half a billion cold-tolerant eucalyptus seedlings each year for bioenergy plantations in the southern United States. Since eucalyptus trees are a documented invasive species in both Florida and California, this has raised red flags for many. Both the Georgia Department of Wildlife and the US Forest Service have submitted comments to the USDA expressing concerns about the impact of plantations on native ecosystems. Meanwhile, several universities, timber corporations, and seedling manufacturers in the Pacific Northwest are also collaborating to develop GM poplar trees for bioenergy production. About 30 species of poplar trees already grow from subtropical to subalpine regions across the United States, Canada, and Europe, meaning there is a serious risk of genetic contamination.
The Sierra Club warns that the “commercial development of out-of-doors applications in the absence of environmental safeguards is a prescription for disaster,” and it is clear that GM tree plantations pose inevitable and irreversible threats to forest ecosystems and the people who inhabit them. Today, 245 organizations and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations from 49 countries support a global ban on GM trees, according to Global Justice Ecology Project.
By Carol Dreibelbis