"Genetic Dialectic: The Biological Politics of Genetically Modified Trees"
NEW CornerHouse Briefing Paper
by Larry Lohmann and Viola Sampson
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Many people around the world are still struggling against the introduction of genetically modified crops - now come biotech trees. The issues raised by GM trees are similar to those raised by GM crops -- yet genetic modification in forestry is even more serious than that in agriculture. Trees live longer; they are largely undomesticated; their biology and lifecyles are poorly understood; forest ecosystems are complex and fragile; corporations and states have control over enormous areas of forest lands -- all these factors combined create unique risks.
Genetically engineered trees are now being field tested in the United States, New Zealand, Indonesia, possibly China. Fruit manufacturers assume that GM trees will be resistant to viruses and diseases; timber and paper manufacturers hope that GM trees with less lignin - the tough connective tissue that holds trees together - will make pulping easier process. As with GM crops, some GM trees have been engineered to produce their own insecticide and to be resistant to herbicides. Other trees have been engineered to grow quicker than the fastest-growing trees currently used in industrial tree plantations. The US suggests that GM trees designed to absorb more carbon dioxide can make possible "continued large-scale use of fossil fuels."
The latest Corner House briefing paper details the latest developments in transgenic trees and highlights the social and environmental problems vast plantations of GM trees would undoubtedly cause, including displacement of people from their lands; pollen and thus gene drift to non-GM trees over many years. It sets these developments in the context of industrial pulpwood plantations, showing how GM trees are yet another technofix for problems created by the factory-like plantations and the worldwide paper industry.
"The attempt to engineer trees genetically belongs to a centuries-old tradition of state and corporate efforts at drastic simplification of large wooded landscapes for specialized purposes", contend the paper's authors, Viola Sampson and Larry Lohmann.
Other interests who are defending local diversity have long been challenging this tradition. The authors conclude that "Tackling the challenge GM trees pose entails alliance-building with groups working against or outside that tradition, from seed savers to communities battling encroachment of industrial tree farms on their land."
Sarah Sexton/Larry Lohmann/Nicholas Hildyard
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