Last March, activists at the 8th Conference of the Parties (COP-8) for the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Curitiba, Brazil called for a global moratorium on genetically modified trees (GM trees). The activists claimed that genetically enhanced trees could harm the environment and the livelihoods of indigenous and local communities. In response, the COP-8 passed a resolution recommending the CBD signatories "take a precautionary approach when addressing the issue of genetically modified trees." The precautionary approach "recognizes that the absence of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing decisions where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm." In general, it is chiefly decisions that would permit the deployment of new technologies that the precautionary approach postpones. We shall see that this line of attack cuts both ways when considering the effects of genetically enhanced trees.
In response to the COP-8 resolution, the United Nations Environment Programme is considering a global moratorium on the planting of genetically modified trees. UNEP is accepting comments on the proposed moratorium until September 1.
Are GM trees a danger to the natural environment? Opponents claim that the potential effects of GM trees include the contamination of native forests, the destruction of biodiversity and wildlife, loss of fresh water, the collapse native forest ecosystems, and cultural destruction of forest based traditional communities and severe human health impacts.
What biotech opponents mean by "contamination" is that GM trees could interbreed with conventional trees passing along their modified traits. That could happen, but is that a real threat to native forests? For example, one of the traits that biotechnologists have modified is boosting soft cellulose and reducing tough lignin fiber in wood. Such trees are easier to turn into paper and produce much less waste. However, trees with this bioengineered trait would have great difficulty surviving in the wild, so it is very unlikely to spread to native trees. Oregon State University forestry professor Steven Strauss dismisses activist concerns over GM trees somehow wiping out wild forests as "sheer nonsense." As for destroying biodiversity and wildlife, GM trees are much more likely to help than to harm. How? By boosting the productivity of tree plantations.
Opponents dismiss tree plantations as "green deserts" devoid of the natural biodiversity of wild forests. Actually, tree plantations do harbor a lot of wild species, but even if they didn't they would still offer significant environmental benefits. Right now about one-third of the world's industrial wood comes from tree plantations and if it could all come from tree plantations that would dramatically relieve pressure to harvest natural forests. An Israeli biotech company claims to have been able to engineer eucalyptus trees that grow four times faster than conventional trees. The modified trees are being field tested by a major Brazilian forestry company. If it works, this means that more trees can be grown on less land.
In fact, Roger Sedjo, a senior fellow at Resources from the Future notes that "all of the world’s timber production could potentially be produced on an area roughly five to ten percent of the total forest today." Sedjo points out that this would mean that "more of the earth’s forests could remain in their natural states, thereby maintaining continuous habitat for biodiversity conservation." It's hard to see what could be more eco-friendly than saving natural forests from loggers' axes.
What about the claim that biotech trees would harm indigenous and local communities? Again, to the extent that indigenous communities are directly dependent on native forest products and species for their livelihoods, reducing commercial pressure to cut down those forests will protect their traditional ways of life. Another concern is that forestry corporations in cahoots with developing country governments will expand tree plantations onto indigenous lands. Surely the better and more direct solution to problems caused by defective land tenure is to give indigenous people strong property rights to their land rather than banning biotech trees.
Biotechnology can also help protect and restore tree species that are threatened by pests and disease. For example, the American chestnut was devastated by an introduced fungal disease that killed more the 3.5 billion trees in the first half of the 20th century. These majestic trees could reach 100 feet in height and five feet in diameter. The chestnut had been the dominant hardwood species throughout the Appalachian Mountains. An enterprising squirrel, we are told, could travel from Maine to Georgia without touching the ground through the interlinked branches of chestnut trees. Now scientists at the University of Georgia and the State University of New York are investigating ways to insert blight-resistance genes into American chestnut artificial seed embryos. Thanks to biotechnology, the American chestnut could be restored later this century to the forests from which it has been missing for nearly two generations.
Looking at current silvicultural practices can also help clarify the benefits and risks involved with GM trees. “Many ecological criticisms of GM trees appear to be overstated,” concludes a recent study by silviculturalists at Oregon State University. “The ecological issues expected from the use of GM poplars appear similar in scope to those managed routinely during conventional plantation culture, which includes the use of exotic and hybrid genotypes, short rotations, intensive weed control, fertilization and density control.”
For example, choosing to plant a conventional poplar or a poplar genetically modified to produce less lignin will have far fewer ecological effects than choosing between planting a poplar, modified or not, and a conifer species. “The specific changes in wood chemistry imparted by GM will be orders of magnitude less than the vast number of new chemicals that distinguish a pine from an aspen,” notes the Oregon State study.
Some activists are not content to campaign for moratoriums backed by the United Nations. In 2001, the activists from the radical Environmental Liberation Front destroyed genetically modified trees at the University of Washington-Seattle and a poplar farm in Oregon.
Recall that under the precautionary approach favored by anti-biotech activists the absence of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing decisions where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm. By opposing biotech trees, it seems that the activists have gotten it backward. The risks to the environment, specifically to wild forests, are far too great to postpone further research and development of genetically enhanced trees. The only sensible conclusion is that imposing a United Nations' moratorium on GM trees risks serious and irreversible harm to the earth's wild forests.