Genetic engineering can yield a range of consequences: It can repopulate an entire seaboard with native trees, or it can displace indigenous people and disrupt natural ecosystems.
QUALLA BOUNDARY, N.C. — Organizations against genetically engineered (GE) trees are working across four continents to call for an end to the scientific manipulation that they say damages the environment, infringes upon the rights of indigenous people, and has negative consequences for the health of people, flora and fauna.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee attended an October gathering in the mountains of North Carolina to protest GE trees as a form of colonization. Their concerns were focused on a process of imprinting DNA from a species of wheat onto American chestnut trees.
“I’m very concerned that GE trees would impact our future generations and their traditional uses of trees. Our basket makers, people that use wood for the natural colors of our clay work–there would be no natural life, no cycle of life in GE tree plantations,” said Lisa Montelongo of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.
Meanwhile, groups are working to ban genetically engineering poplar trees for use as biofuels and paper products — technology being researched at a Canadian university. South of the equator, the movement is against vast plantations of non-native eucalyptus trees that displace communities and have severe environmental consequences.
“We don’t want what will harm our environment, nature that sustains us. The birds, the bees — everything is interconnected,” said BJ McManama, Seneca, an organizer for the Minneapolis-based Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and a member of the Seneca community, told MintPress News.
IEN is a member of the Steering Committee of the international Campaign to STOP GE Trees. These organizations have formed an international network calling for trees to be preserved in their natural state and educating people about the unique threats not only to indigenous cultures, traditions and ways of life, but to all ecology and health.
“When you eliminate something or add something, you’re breaking an interlinked chain that will affect everything else,” said McManama.
Describing this genetic manipulation as another form of colonization, she said, “They [biotech companies] just want to control everything.”
One company on STOP GE Trees’ radar is ArborGen Inc., a tree biotech company based in South Carolina. ArborGen sells “conventional and next generational” seedlings of forest trees such as loblolly pine and longleaf pine and hardwoods like sweet gum, cottonwood and eucalyptus that have been genetically engineered to enhance certain traits and speed up growth.
Cathy O. Quinn, the communications and public affairs manager for ArborGen, said that as the human population grows, renewable sources of wood, fiber and energy are important for meeting the needs of society.
More than 30 years of laboratory testing and 20 years of commercial production have demonstrated the safety of this technology to both humans and the environment, she asserted.
“Planting highly productive trees that can address these needs are one of the solutions that also helps enable the conservation of our natural resources,” Quinn said to MintPress. “Along with this, climate changes demand solutions to the stress facing trees today, including drought and pests. For instance, after the decimation of the American chestnut by chestnut blight, this technology offers great hope in the possible restoration of this tree to the U.S.”
This technology has been tested on dozens of species, including a host of fruit and forest tree species, she said, noting reports of GE poplar trees being grown in plantations in China, GE papaya modified to be resistant to a virus in Hawaii, and a virus-resistant plum being developed for the United States.
There are currently two applications pending to expand the market for GE eucalyptus in the U.S. and the Brazil.
“As part of the USDA APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] BRS [Biotechnology Regulatory Services] permits for field trials, we and other researchers are required to report any unexpected impacts on pests or diseases or non-target organisms,” Quinn said. “We have not observed any such impacts, nor are we aware that other researchers have done so, either. USDA is also required to perform a National Environmental Policy Act analysis for all GE crops which addresses potential ecological effects.”
Despite these impact assessments, studies and applications, McManama asserts that the work of companies like ArborGen is purely profit-driven, not meant to contribute to healthy ecosystems or reforestation.
“We call those kind of people ‘once born,’” McManama said. “They have no connection to the past and no concern for the future.”
ArborGen is seeking regulatory approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for eucalyptus trees genetically engineered to tolerate freezing temperatures. If approved, the company will sell hundreds of millions of seedlings from the area stretching from South Carolina to Florida to Texas.
In Brazil, FuturaGene has requested approval from CTNBio, the Brazilian biosafety regulatory agency, to release GE eucalyptus trees there. The World Rainforest Movement 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.
“Among the supposed benefits, plantation promoters argue that they create thousands of jobs, as well as other social benefits such as building schools and health posts,” said Teresa Perez, a Uruguay-based coordinator for the World Rainforest Movement.
In terms of the jobs promised, the plantations are heavily mechanized and therefore do not create many jobs, Perez told MintPress, adding that the jobs created are seasonal, with small salaries and poor working conditions.
Moreover, these plantations consume vast amounts of water and soil nutrients. Thus, surrounding communities see their water resources dwindle and the water available to them is often contaminated by toxic substances found in monocultures. The destruction of local ecosystems to clear room for plantations results in a loss of biodiversity.
“Although the promoters — corporations, governments, investment agencies — of such monocultures argue that setting up plantations bring many benefits both in terms of the environment and also in social terms, what we have learned from the local communities whose lands have been occupied by plantations is that the reality is far from the promises made,” Perez said.
Tree plantations are a source of deforestation in several countries, Perez noted.
“In many cases the lands occupied are lands that have been traditionally used by communities that, without being consulted, see how their lands are destroyed and occupied by monocultures,” she said. “They lose the lands where they have traditionally planted their crops for self consumption, they lose the forests where they traditionally hunt and gather medicinal plants.”
Yet the effects on these communities aren’t only environmental. Perez explained that traditional gender roles dictate that when the forest is gone and plantations are established, indigenous men and women suffer in different ways. In general, the effects are more severe for women.
“For example, women in Africa, Asia and Latin America are responsible for food production, they do the farming,” Perez said. “They are also responsible for collecting medicinal plants and herbs from the forests, and also for water collection. If the forest is destroyed, women will see their workload increased, as they will have to walk greater distances to access the forest’s water source and obtain what they need.”
When these communities can no longer sustain themselves through agricultural pursuits, they need to find ways to feed their families, she said. In these situations, women will sometimes work for the plantations, earning meager salaries that barely cover their families’ needs.
“Women work on the plantations, often with their children, isolated from their community, exposed to herbicides, pesticides and sexual abuse,” IEN’s McManama said. “These women and children, unprotected now, are often abused.”
Meanwhile, when men are unable to hunt and fish, they can’t support their families the way they’ve done for generations, McManama said, adding that they often leave in search of work.
These forests — particularly in South America — are supposed to be preserved for carbon sequestration, McManama said.
“Always, these people are evicted from their lands,” she said. “They end up in horrible shanty towns. Developed countries continue using industry because they bought their carbon credits. It has accelerated beyond imagination. The eucalyptus leaves are poisonous and fall to the ground. Nothing else lives when poison is in the ground.”
Jay Burney, media coordinator for STOP GE Trees, said there’s a dichotomy between what’s good for humans and what’s good for business.
“Humans do not want this,” Burney told MintPress. “Business does. It’s pushed as a renewable energy but there are a lot of holes in it. It’s not a real solution. It’s ecocide. Plantations mean clear cutting, which means displacing people. It’s a total land grab.”
Restoring a landscape
The American chestnut tree dominated the landscape from Florida to Maine until an Asian blight fungus wiped out 5 billion of the trees in the first half of the 20th century. A major source of lumber for railroad ties and food for people and wildlife, scientists at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) have spent the past 25 years studying ways to create a blight-resistant American chestnut tree.
ESF professors announced in November that they identified a wheat gene that could be spliced with chestnut sprouts and eventually restore the heritage tree to the landscape.
ESF’s American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project researchers plan to grow 10,000 trees on seven pilot sites across the state that have received permits from the Food and Drug Administration. If successful, approvals from the EPA and USDA would also be required before the trees could be sold to the public or planted in the wild.
That approval process is expected to take about five years, and STOP GE Trees is currently mounting a campaign to ban GE chestnut trees in New York.
“Some trees live 100 years. Once in the ecosystem, some of these trees have Bt toxins, pesticides that attack insects,” said Burney. “There’s not any real science studying this effect. As a precautionary principle, we need long-term studies, which haven’t been done. Science says we need studies.”
Dr. Martha Crouch, a biologist based in Indiana and a consultant for the Center for Food Safety, responded to the news of ESF’s genetic altering of the chestnut with a letter to the editor of the Syracuse Post Standard.
“As a biologist familiar with GE tree research, I think release is premature. Their wheat gene is unproven outside of the lab, with no real-world track record even in crops, much less in a tree that can live hundreds of years. And the blight is likely to quickly defeat single gene resistance.”
“The researchers’ dream could become a nightmare if something goes wrong. GE trees will be difficult to recall once they spread,” she warned.
Likewise, Chris Bright, president of Earth Sangha in Northern Virginia, told MintPress that this situation would have to be handled “with a great deal of care.”
“How would you reestablish the chestnut in forests that have long since adjusted to its absence?” Bright said. “I don’t think that we would want to create a situation in which this modified American chestnut turns out to be ‘invasive.’”
Further, the entire ecosystem and food chain needs to be taken into account. There are no less than five to seven moths that depend solely on the chestnut tree and at least 200 other species of moths and butterflies also consume it, said Dr. David L. Wagner, a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut.
“I would estimate that 400 eastern species of moths and butterflies include chestnut in their diet. Thus, the tree supports between 200 and 400 species upon which higher trophic levels such as birds depend,” Wagner told MintPress.
Wagner said he has no issues with genetic engineering as long as there are no ecological or evolutionary effects on other beneficial species. However, he urged that manipulations that would render the tree dangerous to herbivores should be carefully considered, as these would result in a loss of caterpillars that many bird species rely on for food. Wagner explained that if leaves containing anti-herbivore genes shed, it would be lethal to an entire fauna of litter caterpillars of which there are more than 60 species in the east.
“Herminiine erebids [litter caterpillars] are macro-decomposers important for soil formation in eastern forests,” Wagner said. “All of which could be compromised by the movement of leaf litter from orchards, nurseries, or yards into adjacent forest habitat.”
Dr. Doug Tallamy, a professor and chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, author of “Bringing Nature Home,” a book and lecture series that promotes restoring native plants, said the problem with genetic engineering is when large corporations use the technology purely to make money, not to restore a tree to its natural landscape.
“Unlike the eucalyptus being planted all around the world, the chestnut is being restored to its place in nature,” Tallamy said, noting that the eucalyptus is native only to Australia. “A tree put outside its natural ecosystem is not supporting life. I see no reason to do this. We need to understand the role of plants in terms of supporting life. Consider that it takes 9,000 caterpillars to support one clutch of chickadees. A three-acre lawn can be a desert that sustains nothing. That space matters. That’s stewardship.”
American chestnut trees do need to be made resistant to disease, he said.
“One way is to expose the roots to disease over a long time, thousands of years, and natural selection will bring about a resistant tree,” he said. “Another way is to introduce a gene from a resistant chestnut.”
A shortcut involves inserting a gene with a different trait, which is what genetic modification is doing.
“People equate this to GMOs with agricultural products,” Tallamy said. “But the chestnut is not being manipulated for big business or to displace it from its natural place. This is to restore it to nature.”
These genes are specific to resist disease, he said. Insects — organisms that are critical to 90 percent of birds and the chain of interdependency of nature — will still eat this, he said, and pollen from one tree species does not pollinate other species of trees.
“There is much debate about how best to re-introduce the American chestnut into eastern U.S. forests; but it seems clear that no one is saying that this tree will ever return to its pre-blight dominance,” said Peter Forbes, president of Trees for the Planet and a board member of Earth Sangha. “The ecosystem has moved on, and trying to recreate and reintroduce on a wide scale is a bit of fantasy.”
Forbes said the real goal of American chestnut breeding research is not to find a tree that will survive hundreds of years, but to get a tree that will survive long enough to produce viable seeds, then let nature take over and find resistant mutations on its own.
“One of the problems in the GMO discussion is that even people of good will and intelligence often conflate complicated parts of the debate,” Forbes said. “For example, the dangers of GMO herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans to those who consume them is one separate issue which will need more research; the damage to the ecosystem from huge increases in herbicide usage is a separate issue, and one, in my opinion, not up for debate.”
No one really knows what long-term effects a wide range of GE products or GMOs will have on local ecosystems, Forbes said, noting that the effects of GMO byproducts on human health and food webs are also not fully understood.
“It is possible that some GMO products introduced under long-term controlled experiments could provide answers satisfactory to all sides of the debate,” Forbes said. “But when the pressure for short-term results and profits is dominant, objective long-term science often gets pushed aside. And when GMO products can keep some people from starving — as is the case with GMO bananas — passions can become quite inflamed.”
While GMOs and GE products could potentially address worldwide issues like hunger and energy needs, they aren’t necessarily always better than current options. For example, groups including STOP GE Trees, Biofuelwatch, the Center for Food Safety, the Global Justice Ecology Project and the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network are condemning research at the University of British Columbia, where GE poplar trees are being studied for biofuel production that will impact the rest of the world.
Global Justice Ecology Project reports: “Using fast growing GE trees to supply pellet mills and biomass incinerators will release dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. While burning wood to create energy sounds sustainable, new science suggests that it will have a similar impact on the climate as burning coal. Fast growing plantations will also deplete soil nutrients, increasing the need for chemical fertilizers.”
“Burning trees is just as bad for the environment as coal,” said IEN’s McManama. “It still emits carbon dioxide. They would have to have massive stores to continue this as an energy source.”
The process also increases turpine levels, the flammable material in trees, she said.
The lignin of poplar trees would be modified so the wood is less intensive to break down for paper products and biofuels. Lignin is a key structural component of plant cell walls and a major component of soils. It is also the product of millions of years of natural selection favoring sturdy, healthy and resilient plants.
Poplars comprise about 30 species widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere and have a high potential for genetic dispersal, according to the Center for Food Safety.
“They cannot guarantee this won’t contaminate an ecosystem,” McManama said. “We question that. The plots being tested are isolated and effects cannot be studied.”
“The concern of our elders is that these will take away the future of the next generations. Our medicinal plants grow there. Wildlife depends on the land being healthy. What we need to do is take care of our ecosystems that have sustained us through our generations and not create even more problems.”