Monoculture tree plantations are already threatening enough to biological diversity, but things could get worse. Genetic engineering (GE), which had unleashed a host of poorly tested and little understood so-called "advancements" on the world of agriculture, is now being applied to forestry. Research to develop trees to express a multitude of traits solely for the purpose of increasing productivity to fuel the $400 billion global wood products market (of which the U.S. consumes 25%) is being carried out at UC Davis and other locations.
Consider these pitfalls of GE tree cultivation:
1) A naturally occurring bacteria--Bt-toxin--could be genetically engineered to be in every cell of a tree. Any insects that ingest any part of the tree die. For industry, this would be an efficient form of insect control. The magnitude of the harm of Bt-toxin entering the environment from GE trees, however, would be unprecedented.
2) Trees could be genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup, harmful to populations of insects, fish, birds, fungi and bacteria, and more.
3) In GE trees, lignin, the structural glue that gives trees strength, is reduced. Wood fiber then processes to paper more economically. But the weaker trees are less able to
withstand infestations, heavy winds, and other events of nature.
4) Genetically engineered trees are bred to be sterile to prevent contamination of native species but sterility is not 100% achieved. When contamination occurs, ecosystems are imperiled with the effects described above. There is no method of containment, and drift is a much greater threat than with other GE crops simply because trees are taller.
5) GE trees remain the intellectual property of the patent-holding corporation.
Forest activists demonstrated against the corporate plan for GE trees when international agriculture ministers met in Sacramento to discuss trade agreements and GMOs in June. Xpedx, the retail outlet of International Paper (IP) Co., who, along with Monsanto, is leading the change toward development of GE trees was a demonstration target. The other action was at UC Davis where GE tree research is taking place.
The one good piece of news is that commercial production is still 5-10 years away, allowing us time to stop the corporate "mad scientists". To learn more, check out www.asej.org.