GE trees

Report - May 2008

An overview of risk assessment and risk management issues

Trees differ in a number of important characteristics from field crops, and these characteristics are also relevant for any risk assessment of genetically engineered (GE) trees. A review of the scientific literature shows that due to the complexity of trees as organisms with large habitats and numerous interactions, currently no meaningful and sufficient risk assessment of GE trees is possible, and that especially a trait-specific risk assessment is not appropriate. Both scientific literature and in-field experience show that contamination by and dispersal of GE trees will take place. Transgenic sterility is not an option to avoid the potential impacts posed by GE trees and their spread. Regulation of trees on a national level will not be sufficient because due to the large-scale dispersion of reproductive plant material, GE trees are likely to cross national borders. All this makes GE trees a compelling case for the application of the precautionary principle.

Technical Briefing - February 2008

Commentary on the official background paper by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) entitled “The Potential Environmental, Cultural and Socio-Economic Impacts of Genetically Modified Trees” (UNEP/CBD/SBSTTA/13/INF/6)

It is the purpose of the Convention on Biological Diversity to protect biological diversity in all of its richness – this is also done in awareness of its importance for the functioning of vital systems such as ecosystems, climate systems and water systems. Forests include some of the world’s most important biodiversity reserves with some forest soils alone containing thousands of species. Many of these species are endemic to particular ecosystems and the fragmenting of forest ecosystems has left these species highly vulnerable to new threats. It is therefore crucial that the CBD address emerging issues such as genetically engineered (modified) trees with an eye to ensuring that forest biological diversity is in no way negatively affected.

Briefing - March 2006

Implications for Human Health, Biodiversity and Biosafety

The damaging effects of conventional industrial mono-culture tree plantations is already well-documented. The addition of transgenic tree plantations can only worsen these existing problems. Add to this the utter lack of credible risk assessment of transgenic tree release,
especially on a global scale, and it becomes a matter of common sense that there must not be any further forward motion in the commercial development of transgenic tree plantations. The UN CBD must impose a moratorium on the technology and launch a thorough and global examination of the risks of this technology.

Briefing - March 2006

UN COP-8 Briefing No. 2

Genetically engineered trees do not offer a solution to global warming, rather they are a global distraction from finding real solutions to the problems of global warming. In addition, they threaten the world’s forests through gene flow and other hazards. This is why people on all continents are raising the call for a global moratorium on the release of genetically modified trees into the environment.

Briefing - December 2000

The Biological Politics of Genetically Modified Trees

The processes through which genetically engineered trees are being developed are profoundly biased against social arrangements which promote and rely on biological diversity. These processes are also riven by dilemmas and destructive tendencies which chains of technical refinements, no matter how long, are likely to be powerless to overcome. Tackling the challenge GM trees pose means tackling the industrial and bureaucratic tradition which seeks the radical simplification of landscapes. That 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.
In these respects, the issues raised by GM trees are similar to those raised by GM crops. Yet in many ways, genetic modification in forestry is an even more serious issue than genetic engineering in agriculture. Trees’ long lives and largely undomesticated status, their poorly understood biology and lifecycles, the complexity and fragility of forest ecosystems, and corporate and state control over enormous areas of forest land on which GM trees could be planted combine to create risks which are unique. The biosafety and social implications of the application of genetic engineering to forestry are grave enough to warrant both an immediate halt to releases of GM trees and renewed attention to the social, historical and political roots of the tree biotech boom.


What is the problem with GE trees?

Trees differ in a number of important characteristics from field crops. Trees have a much longer lifespan (ranging from decades to centuries) and a large geographic distribution. They are exposed longer to a wider range of biotic and abiotic stresses (e.g. cold, drought, storm) than field crops. As compared with annual crops, trees are not highly domesticated and can readily outcross to ‘wild’ trees outside managed plantations. They can do so over very long distances, as tree pollen and seeds are mostly highly mobile.
They are integral to complex and highly diverse ecosystems (e.g. forests) and they fulfil important functions regarding water regulation as well as micro and macro climate systems.
There is very little data, knowledge and understanding about all this, about how genetic engineering might affect a tree in the long term and how genetically engineered (GE) trees might impact ecosystems, water and climate systems. There is a high degree of uncertainty and unpredictability. Therefore the risks of genetically engineered (GE) trees go much beyond those of (mainly annual) GE field crops. Their danger to natural forests, biodiversity and global forest ecosystems, make the release of GE trees a global concern.
Nevertheless there are attempts to reduce the risk assessment of GE trees to the same few factors that are commonly used to assess annual GE crops like maize and soya.
For the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meetings in 2008, EcoNexus highlighted these problems in detail by giving an Overview of risk assessment issues of GE trees and by commenting on the potential ecological and social impacts of GE trees in cooperation with ten other NGOs with different expertise. EcoNexus also takes effects of GE trees on human health into account.
GE trees are sometimes proposed not only for their expected production traits, but also as a strategy to deal with global warming, e.g. as carbon sink. In a briefing paper for the CBD in 2006, EcoNexus explains why this strategy is short-sighted and not a viable alternative to protecting existing forests.

January 2011