Transgenic Trees Pose Risks for Natural Foresters


PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, June 21, 2005 (ENS) - Participants at BioDemocracy 2005, the alternative conference to the Biotechnology Industry Organization's yearly gathering, are demanding a ban on the release of genetically engineered (GE) trees into the environment.

"Genetically engineered trees are already being researched in the field, and industry is moving rapidly toward commercialization without regard for the predictable and inevitable impacts they will have on ecosystems and communities," four conservation groups said in a statement today.

The Sierra Club, the Global Justice Ecology Project, Southern Forests Network and STOP GE Trees Campaign say there has been little risk assessment on the impacts of gene drift from genetically modified trees, and they charge that regulatory agencies are acting as facilitators for industry rather than champions of the public interest.

"Gene drift has caused widespread contamination of non-GE seeds in farm crops less than a decade after commercialization," said Alyx Perry, coordinator of the Southern Forests Network. "GE trees will much more quickly contaminate forests with traits that could make them incapable of producing sawtimber and unable to support wildlife," said Perry.

Test plots of genetically engineered in the Southeast threaten to contaminate the forests of Pennsylvania and the entire east coast of the United States and Canada, the groups warn.

"Transgenic forestry focuses on native trees species that have pollen and seeds historically known to travel for hundreds if not thousands of miles," they said today.

Legal concerns are being raised about the potential escape of genetically modified tree pollen or seeds into native trees. The conservationists cite the Canadian case of canola farmer Percy Schmeiser who was successfully sued by Monsanto for patent violations when his crops were contaminated by Monsanto's transgenic canola. Schmeiser lost his canola crop and had to pay $160,000 in legal fees.

"This opens the very serious question about who will own trees on public or private lands that become contaminated by GE tree pollen, and what will be the legal and financial ramifications for the owners of that land," the groups said.

Proponents of transgenic trees say they offer potential solutions to forestry problems. In a 2004 study, Roger Sedjo of Resources for the Future, says, "Transgenic trees could increase the productivity of industrial wood, and benefit the environment by taking the pressure off of old-growth and natural forests."

Sedjo says other benefits include restoration of certain diseased or damaged tree species, as well as toxic cleanup and bioremediation, by creating trees to remove heavy metals and other toxics from contaminated soils in places where other forms of cleanup are too expensive.

"Just as in agriculture, biotechnology and transgenics are controversial topics in forestry," Sedjo acknowledges.

There are many aspects to the controversy, as today's comments of the conservation groups indicate.

"In addition to GE trees threatening Pennsylvania's native forests, GE apple trees, being researched in nearby Cornell University, threaten the millions of conventional and organic apple trees in production in Pennsylvania," said Dr. Neil Carman of the Sierra Club.

"GE contamination could lead to economic disaster for Pennsylvania's apple growers in much the same way that GE papaya in Hawaii has wiped out many conventional and organic papaya farmers there. The only solution is to ban the release of GE trees into the environment," Carman said.

"While the genetic engineering PR spin doctors are cranking out propaganda about how GE trees will solve our problems, the fact is GE trees will cause massive new problems, some of which we can't possibly foresee," said Orin Langelle, coordinator of the STOP GE Trees Campaign, an alliance of 13 organizations from the U.S. and Canada committed to banning transgenic trees.



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