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GM trees a threat to forests' diversity

Pandurang Hegde, March 20, 2013, DHNS:

The seeds of rubber tree are used as cattle feed, that gets into the food chain through milk.

On the World Forestry Day today (March 21) it is a matter of serious concern to note that the proponents of biotechnology industry have been working towards establishing Genetically Engineered (GE) trees to help reverse deforestation and to meet the ever increasing demand for pulpwood.

They claim that trees that are genetically altered grow faster and yield better quality of wood in extreme temperatures. Thus they are a boon to forestry in dealing with climate change. The Pentagon even sponsored research on developing pine trees that can change the colour to detect biological or chemical attack. Obviously, these multiple uses of genetically modified trees are the basis for establishing GE forests.

The first field trials of GE trees were started in Belgium in 1988, when researchers began to develop poplar trees that were herbicide resistant and that could grow faster. In 2002,  China established commercial GE poplar trees plantation as a strategy to address the issue of deforestation. Initially GE trees were established in 300 hectares, and now China has embraced the GE technology on a large scale, integrating this into forestry sector. Latin American countries like Brazil and Argentina, the forerunners in GM food crops are also working on GE trees to enhance the production of pulp and paper.


How safe are they?

Is GE trees safer than GM crops? The proponents of the technology claim that GE trees are safer and there is no need to fear about negative consequences. Already the United Nations has approved plantations of GE trees as carbon sinks under Kyoto Protocol’s clean development mechanism. With this stamp of approval, many countries would like to adopt the technology and establish GE plantations.

Questions are already being raised worldwide on the dangers posed by GE trees. Some say that this technology poses as serious a threat as GM crops. The crops are annuals, grown every year whereas the trees are perennial, that live longer than agricultural crops. The changes in the metabolism of trees may occur many years after they are planted, and trees are wild, undomesticated. This makes it difficult to decipher as to how the introduced gene will behave in natural environment. This fact implies that the ecological risks associated with GE trees are far greater than the agricultural crops.

It has also been documented that the tree pollen travels a distance of more than 600 km.  The probability that the GE tree pollen is likely to contaminate vast expanses of native forests with a wide variety of destructive traits may be a threat to ecological balance and the existing biodiversity of the tropical forests in global south. The contaminated pollen might pose threat to honey bees, adversely impacting pollination in the wild and on agriculture crops.

Who are the companies behind developing GE trees and plantations? Obviously, as in the case of GM food crops, it is ArborGen a subsidiary of Monsanto, oil companies like British Petroleum and Chevron that are investing in this technology. For these companies GE trees offer a viable alternate to fossil fuels as GE trees could produce ethanol, a green fuel. As the ethanol produced from food stocks came under attack, the companies see bright future in non-food cellulose feedstock like GE trees.

In India, the first experiment with genetically engineered tree was with rubber tree developed by the Rubber Research Institute in Kerala.  They are better adapted to drought resistance and increased environment stress tolerance. This will help to establish rubber in non traditional areas where the conditions are not favourable. Ironically the field trials for GE rubber trees were approved by minister Jairam Ramesh, the person who was instrumental in withholding the introduction of GM crops! He asserted that the genetically modified trees posed lesser threat in comparison to the food crops.

This assumption is baseless as the seeds of rubber tree are used as cattle feed, that gets into the food chain through milk. Similarly, Kerala is one of those regions that produce large quantity of rubber honey from rubber plantations. Kerala, a GM free state is worried about the implications of GE rubber on biodiversity and the state government has voiced its concern about bio safety issues. Now the rubber trees are being experimented in Maharashtra.

These developments show the predominance of the western forestry science that lays emphasis on forests as a commercial entity to produce wood and pulp. Diverse forests were simplified by removal of multiple species and establishing monocultures that had commercial value. The country’s landscape is scarred with millions of hectares of teak and eucalypts mono culture plantations. This approach has had negative consequences for the environment, biodiversity and the local indigenous people. The same trend will be reinforced with the establishment of GE tree plantations, leading to further devastation of the natural environment and forests.

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