Will GMO forests save resources or destroy the ones we have?
Scientists all over the world are working on “Super Trees” they say will help the environment by capturing more carbon dioxide and help farmers make more profits. But environmentalists worry that the genetically modified forests of the future could do more harm than good.
That’s the debate covered in the documentary Synthetic Forests: The Dangers of Genetically Engineered Trees by Santa Cruz filmmaker Ed Schehl and Earth Links Inc. activist Steve Leinau.
Tree plantations aren’t a new thing. However, according to the film, genetically modified trees (GMO, GE or “Frankentrees”) are the next wave in a growing business to maximize
profits for tree farmers, biofuel and paper companies. And it’s happening now. The U.S. is projected to produce 21 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022, with roughly 11 billion of that coming from tree plantations in southern states.
“The reason we made [Synthetic Forests] now is these GE trees are just about to be introduced,” Leinau grimly explains. “The GE eucalyptus has just been approved in Brazil, and it’s pending with the USDA now, waiting for the final comment period.”
There are three types of genetically engineered trees on the market for possible commercial use—eucalyptus, poplar and the loblolly pine—grown for biofuel for power plants, cars, furniture and paper. The genetic modifications are for climate resistance, quicker growth (producing a faster yield for farmers), disease/pest resistance, density, lignin weakness (for easier processing) and sterility, which ensures farmers must purchase their next crop.
Genes are modified in a straightforward but technical process. First, scientists target a particular trait they want expressed. Then they extract the DNA from one organism and into another using a vector—bacteria or a virus—to insert the target gene into the host cell. Without the vector, the foreign DNA would be rejected by the host. Instead, it acts as a weakening agent, attaching itself to the host genome and allowing for replication.
The potential benefits of GMOs are well publicized. On its website, FuturaGene, a global leader in the emerging biotechnology, claims its genetically modified eucalyptus (GME) could yield up to 15 percent more than conventional eucalyptus, capture 12 percent more carbon, and give farmers a 28 percent increase in profit. ArborGen, another global leader that specializes in plantation tree seedlings for the forestry industry, says its SuperTree Seedlings (a registered trademark) uses advanced genetics to “enhance the traits of these species.”
After all, humans have been enhancing the preferred traits in plants and animals for at least 12,000 years. Isn’t the direct manipulation of genes the next logical step in a society driven by technology? No, says geneticist and Canadian science broadcaster David Suzuki.
“We study the genetics of organisms by breeding the male and female of one species, looking at their offspring and breeding them through what is called ‘vertical inheritance’ of a species,” Suzuki says. “When you take a gene from one species and transfer that DNA into a totally unrelated species, that’s a completely different kind of experiment. This is called ‘horizontal inheritance.’ We’ve never done that before and it is absolutely bad science to say we can look at vertical inheritance and use the same ideas to explain what goes on in horizontal inheritance.”
One of the greatest concerns raised by GE trees is the cross-pollination contamination of indigenous forests, which are already endangered. Scientists have found “natural” loblolly pines give off millions of pounds of pollen light, enough to travel distances for hundreds of miles. Cross-pollination can also lead to the contamination of organic farms, ruining crops and leading to potential lawsuits by biotech companies, as documented cases have shown.
“Of course you have the problem of cross-pollination,” describes Leinau. “And for people who are worried about ingesting GMOs, or breathing GMO pollen, once there’s cross-pollination between GE eucalyptus and ‘native’ eucalyptus, they will be breathing it forever.”
While the immediate impact on human health is uncertain, the filmmakers believe the negative implications could be astounding.
“Many of these trees are being grown and then pelletized to use as biofuels for power plants,” Schehl grimly summarizes. “As the film states, when it comes to particulate matter [ultra-fine particles], it is much worse to burn wood than coal.”
This is because not only does wood empty more carbon into the atmosphere, but also its particles are so fine they are more easily absorbed into our bloodstream.
GE plants are marketed as disease- or pest-resistant but often the genes are manipulated to be resistant to pesticides (e.g. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds). So instead of fewer pesticides, farmers often use more. One of those chemicals is Atrazine, which is aerially sprayed over the tree crops after harvest to kill any invasive plants before the next sowing.
“Atrazine is also associated with a number of reproductive health problems in humans,” Dr. Tyrone Hayes, professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, warns in the film. “It’s associated with low sperm count. It’s associated with an increase in breast cancer. It’s associated with an increase in prostate cancer, and it’s associated with at least three birth defects.”
Hayes should know. His research on Atrazine was used to win a multi-million dollar class-action lawsuit against Syngenta, a Swiss manufacturer of the chemical, revealing Atrazine as the number one contaminant of drinking, ground, surface, and rainwater—with a travelling distance of more than 1,000 miles.
As grave and uncertain as this may all sound, Leinau is cultivating a seedling of hope.
“The biggest thing right now is people need to share this information,” says Leinau. “The USDA will be opening up for final comments before the genetically engineered eucalyptus is permitted for unrestricted release.”
Schehl could not agree more.
“People can change this just as they did with net neutrality,” he concludes. “I think it can happen. With the Internet, now we have the power back.”
PHOTO: A Mapuche woman in the documentary ‘Synthetic Forests: The Dangers of Genetically Engineered Trees’ protests genetically modified tree plantations, which are raising environmental and health concerns.