2.So what's wrong with GM trees?
NOTE: See also this website on the problems with GM trees
1.Bid to plant genetically-modified trees in UK
By Jasper Copping
The Telegraph, 9 August 2008
Scientists have applied to plant genetically modified trees in Britain despite fears that they will damage native wildlife, The Sunday Telegraph can disclose.
Genetically-modified trees are set to be introduced in Britain despite environmentalist concerns
Supporters of GM trees say the technology can also be used to help protect Britain's forests from disease
They have asked the Forestry Commission for permission to put GM trees on its land for an international study into biofuels. But environmental campaigners have pledged to fight the scheme.
It is the first time scientists have tried to grow GM trees here since 1999, when activists destroyed 115 specimens at a test site in Bracknell, Berkshire.
Scientists from the University of Southampton said the time had now come to try and "move the debate forward" on GM trees. Their project involves poplars that have been genetically altered to reduce the amount of lignin, a constituent of wood. The team believe this will make it easier for the trees to be used to produce ethanol, a so called "biofuel" which can be used to replace petrol in cars, as well as pulp for paper.
Supporters of GM trees say the technology can also be used to help protect Britain’s forests from disease and improve the quality of the country's timber produce.
Professor Gail Taylor, who is leading the new project, said: "We're in a black hole at the moment, as far as research goes. But it is hard to imagine a world in the future where these technologies are not deployed more widely.
"We need to get the evidence to see if these things can be deployed on a wide scale.
"The extreme environmentalists are preventing us from collecting the evidence. We have to go public and try to move the public debate forward. We know what the consequences will be but we need that debate."
But Clare Oxborrow, GM campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "We have major concerns. We have no idea what the interaction with wild trees could be. There could be unforeseen consequences.
"There is a growing global movement for a complete moratorium on GM trees, because of their ecological impact. These trees could cross-pollinate with wild trees over great distances. If traits are passed on to native trees it can have a significant negative impact on biodiversity."
Anne Peterman, from the international group Global Justice Ecology Project, which is running a campaign called Stop GE (genetically engineered) Trees, said: "GM trees are a very bad idea, for a lot of reasons. If these trees are released into the environment, then contamination is inevitable. We do not support any trials, because there is no guarantee against escapes of the genetically modified traits."
Trees are expected to become a major source of biofuel and the Southampton team believe the GM modified ones will have an ethanol yield 40 per cent greater than "normal" poplars.
They are carrying out the research with academics from France and Belgium and are seeking locations in Britain and Belgium. They have submitted an application with the Forestry Commission to use one of the UK sites run by its research agency, Forest Research. If it is approved, the location will be made public.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will also have to approve the scheme, but scientists have been encouraged by recent comments by Joan Ruddock, the Environment Minister, in which she appears to endorse new GM trees trials, provided they comply with strict guidelines. Earlier this year, the Minister attended a meeting in Germany to discuss the issue with politicians from around the world.
The meeting outlined the circumstances in which trials could go ahead. Until the end of trials in the 1990s, British scientists were in the vanguard of research into GM trees and were the first to grow elm that could resist Dutch elm disease. Researchers at the University of Abertay in Dundee found that anti-fungal genes transferred into the elm genome were able give the trees the capacity to fight off the killer fungus.
Scientists believe other tree diseases, such as chestnut blight and sudden oak death, which is affecting a growing number of oak and beech trees in the UK, could also be tackled by genetic modification. Trees have also been genetically altered to grow more quickly, be more tolerant of weedkillers and resistant to pests. Professor Claire Halpin, from the University of Dundee, worked on the field trials of poplars destroyed by saboteurs in 1999.
She said: "The real tragedy of the attacks on the field trials were that they actually prevented us accumulating the knowledge of just how useful they could be. I can't see any justification for interfering with field trials.
"The whole area has had such a bad press that it would be a real bonus to find an example where they could show a conservation benefit - to make people stop and think again that it could be beneficial, rather than the entrenched positions - almost knee-jerk responses that some of the conservation groups have come out with.
"In other parts of the world, people really are pursuing it much more actively than we are at the moment. If these trees do offer benefits we will be left behind."
Although research in the UK stopped at the end of the 1990s, other countries have invested heavily in the technology and experts fear a lack of new research could leave the British forestry industry struggling to compete with foreign competition.
Jane Karthaus, from the UK's Confederation of Forest Industries, said: "We are always open-minded and if there were a potentially significant (GM) breakthrough which, for example, would allow a reduction in pesticide use, or would tackle a challenge thrown up by climate change, such as, from new pests and diseases then we would consider it within the context of sustainable forest management with partners in the environmental sector and in government."
There have been five field trials of GM trees in Britain. Three were completed normally: two trials of eucalyptus conducted by Shell in Kent, one in 1993 and one in 1995, and a trial of paradise apple carried out by the University of Derby in 1995. But two trials of poplars by the biotechnology company Astra Zeneca, at Jealott's Hill, Bracknell, Berkshire, one due to be completed by 2002 and the other by 2004, were destroyed by eco-activists in 1999.
By Claire Robinson
[a slightly edited version of this article was originally published in The Ecologist - www.theecologist.org]
The United States government has given the go-ahead for a test plot of genetically modified (GM) eucalyptus trees in Alabama. For the first time, these trees will be allowed to flower and set seed, opening the door to potential widespread contamination of the American South. Some of the trees are genetically engineered by biotech firm ArborGen for cold tolerance, while others are engineered with 'confidential' traits. Published articles and industry reports
indicate that these traits may include the ability to kill insects and reduced lignin. Lignin gives strength to trees and enables them to take up water.
The permit for the flowering GM eucalyptus was approved by APHIS (the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, a sub-department of the US Department of Agriculture). The approval follows APHIS's grant of non-regulated status for the GM pox-resistant 'Honeysweet' plum, which the USDA itself helped develop. Non-regulated status is given on the basis that APHIS has decided that the plant does not present a risk of introduction or dissemination of a plant pest. Deregulation of the GM plum marked the first commercial release of a GM temperate tree in the US. It occurred in spite of the fact that public comments against the proposal to deregulate the plum outnumbered those in favour by 100 to 1.
APHIS has also approved the largest-ever release in the US of GM poplars. Some are modified for reduced stature and light response, others for altered lignin content, and others to result in a male-sterile plant.
This raft of GM tree approvals confirms that the trend in the US regulatory system is to rubber-stamp applications for release with disregard for the risks. Anne Petermann, co-director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, says, 'There is no independent risk assessment going on in the US or anywhere else with regard to GM trees.'
As far as eucalyptus is concerned, even to introduce it in its non-GM form could be foolhardy. Eucalyptus is a species of the tropics and subtropics, and is not native to the US. In countries where it has been introduced, it has become invasive. The fact that some of ArborGen's GM eucalyptus trees are modified to be cold tolerant will extend their ability to colonize. There is no way of knowing how this and the eucalyptus's other GM traits (which ArborGen will not reveal) may impact forests and wildlife.
Another problem with GM eucalyptus trees that APHIS ignores is the risk to people and animals. The Global Justice Ecology Project has uncovered evidence that one of the eucalyptus species engineered into the GM version is host to a deadly pathogenic fungus called Cryptococcus gattii, which causes fatal fungus meningitis in people and animals that inhale its spores. Cases are increasing worldwide, possibly coinciding with the spread of introduced eucalyptus. Two recent studies show that the fungal human pathogen is common in eucalyptus and that it is endemic in the Northwest US and British Columbia, Canada. APHIS ignored the fact that eucalyptus poses a threat as a plant pest spreading a human pathogen. It has dismissed the warnings of scientists such as Dr Joseph Heitman, director of the Center for Microbial Pathogenesis at Duke University Medical Center and an expert on Cryptococcus, who said, 'Introducing large numbers of eucalyptus trees in the United States has the potential
provide a suitable habitat for Cryptococcus gattii.'
A major reason why regulators are bowing to industry pressure to commercialize GM trees is that they are claimed to offset carbon emissions, and thus qualify for subsidies under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism. In addition, the rising demand for biofuels has opened up an opportunity for proponents to rescue GM crops from chronic market failure by promoting them as energy crops.
Unfortunately, energy crops, including GM trees, are far from sustainable. The United Nations is one of several bodies that have pointed out that the rush to energy crops threatens food shortages and increased poverty. Worldwide grain shortages have already been blamed on agricultural land being given over to biofuel crops. The UN report also says biofuel crops are not guaranteed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Biofuels result in some reductions in emissions compared to petroleum fuels, it says, but this is provided there is no clearing of forest or peat that store centuries of carbon. In reality, deforestation is already speeding up in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia to make way for palm oil and other plantations to feed the new biodiesel market.
The traits engineered into GM trees bring their own environmental problems. Sterility technology as used in GM poplars is designed to make the trees male-sterile by making the pollen non-viable. It is increasingly used as a selling point by the GM industry on the grounds that it will prevent GM contamination of conventional plants. However, it is a 'leaky' technology, in that some viable pollen is produced. Thus the male sterility trait could spread to contaminate non-GM trees, and could lead to sterile forests.
Bt trees, in which a pesticide is engineered into every cell, are toxic to insects. Evidence is growing that Bt crops are also toxic to other non-target organisms, such as animals that graze on them or feed on the insects that have ingested the Bt. Bt crops also infect soil, leaving it toxic to other plants. Trees have life-cycles of 100 years or more, so Bt tree plantations will be sources of toxicity for many years to come.
Low-lignin trees are of particular value to the biofuels industry. Anne Petermann explains, 'Since cellulose is the material of interest in trees in the manufacture of cellulosic ethanol, and lignin gets in the way of accessing this cellulose, genetically engineering trees for higher cellulose and reduced lignin content is of great economic interest. I would venture it unlikely that industry would pursue trees for cellulosic ethanol without them being genetically engineered.' The problem with low-lignin trees is that half their strength has been removed, making them vulnerable to environmental stresses such as high winds and pest attack. The tendency of GM traits to leak into ecosystems raises the prospect of disastrously weakened forests unable to cope with increasingly extreme weather. And once fallen, low-lignin trees decompose more rapidly, returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at an accelerated timescale and thereby negating any supposed greenhouse gas benefits.
In spite of the hype surrounding the use of wood for biofuels, the technology does not yet exist to do it efficiently. Probably, it cannot be done without using GM enzymes. For this reason, the US Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute is involved in a project to genetically engineer the enzyme from the gut of a termite to aid the cellulose digestion process. As Anne Petermann says, 'Imagine the impact on forests if that got loose smoehow.' But it seems that when it comes to GM trees, our regulators would prefer not to imagine, or even to exercise common sense.
1.USDA Approves 1st Flowering GE Tree (Eucalyptus), APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) notification, http://www.stopgetrees.org/article.php?story=20070716121113880
2.National Effort Launched to Stop Genetically Engineered Eucalyptus Plantations in US Southeast, http://aeconline.wagdc.com/?sn=367
3.Transgenic Plum Gets USDA Non-regulated Status Based on False Claims of Safety, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/TransgenicPlumUSDA.php
4.Unregulated Release of GM Poplars and Hybrids, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GMpoplarsandhybrids.php
5.Anne Petermann, personal communication 6.U.S. Health & Enviro Agencies Asked to Investigate Potential Link Between Pathogenic Fungus & Introduced GE Eucalyptus, http://www.stopgetrees.org/article.php?story=20070614090301897
Personal communication with Prof. Joe Cummins. Joe Cummins cites 2 studies to support his statement that 'the fungal human pathogen is common in eucalyptus' and 'endemic' in the Northwest US and British Columbia, Canada, respectively: (i) Gugnani HC et al, Isolation of Cryptococcus gattii and Cryptococcus neoformans var. grubii from the flowers and bark of Eucalyptus trees in India, Med Mycol. 2005 Sep;43(6):565-9; (ii) MacDougall L et al, Spread of Cryptococcus gattii in British Columbia, Canada, and detection in the Pacific Northwest, USA, Emerg Infect Dis. 2007 Jan;13(1):42-50.
7.U.S. Health & Enviro Agencies Asked to Investigate Potential Link Between Pathogenic Fungus & Introduced GE Eucalyptus, http://www.stopgetrees.org/article.php?story=20070614090301897
8.Moratorium on all GM Trees and Ban on GM Forest Trees, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Moratorium_on_all_GM_Trees.php
9.Global rush to energy crops threatens to bring food shortages and increase poverty, says UN, http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=7849
10.ENERGY-CHINA: Biofuels Eating Into Food Grain Stocks, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=35905
11.Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/BiofuelsBiodevastationHunger.php
12.Moratorium on all GM Trees and Ban on GM Forest Trees, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Moratorium_on_all_GM_Trees.php
13.Bt Cotton & Livestock effects: CSA meets farmers & officials in Adilabad district', http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=7614
14.Genetically-modified Bt cotton a cropper: Study, http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=5103
15.Anne Petermann, personal communication
16.Moratorium on all GM Trees and Ban on GM Forest Trees, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Moratorium_on_all_GM_Trees.php
17.Termite Gut Bacteria as Allies in Biofuel Production, http://www.cedab.it/newsletter_ISAAA.asp?IDnews=103#ancora9