From Chainsaws to Gene Guns

By Populus and Pseudotsuga
Earth First! Beltane 2003

The genetic engineering of trees is a continuation of civilization's domination of all that is wild.

The executives and scientists of biotech corporations can only see the forests for their genes: They are rushing to patent, control, engineer and commodify solely to increase their profits. In their blindness, they do not understand that forests are a wondrously complex and beautifully interdependent system of millions of plants, bacteria, fungi, trees, animals, and insects all with their own intrinsic right to exist.

If genetically engineered (GE) trees are commercialized in the US, they will contaminate our native forests, whether they are on private land, in parks, national forests or in wilderness. If we permit this to become a reality, all of the efforts by the forest conservation movement to save wilderness and native forests from the chainsaw will be for naught.

Traits Being Engineered
There are four main traits being engineered into trees: tolerance to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide; pesticide production with the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensus (Bt) which is inserted and present in every cell; sterility; and decreased lignin content. Other traits include decreased branching; stress and ozone tolerance; altered day length perception so that trees can grow in areas where they are normally unable to; and salt tolerance, which will enable trees to be grown in soil turned saline from industrial agriculture practices.

Lignin is a naturally occurring compound that hardens and strengthens cell walls; protecting trees from insects and allowing them to stand upright. Decreasing the lignin content of trees is touted by the biotech industries as a 'green aspect' of GE trees. They claim this will allow them to use fewer chemicals to break down the lignin in the Kraft process for making paper. However, there are already sustainable, nontoxic methods for making paper. Decreasing the lignin content of trees will primarily serve to make papermaking less costly for the paper industry. This genetic weakening could also cause more insect problems, and when these low lignin genes contaminate native trees, forests could blow down in even moderate storms.

Inserting Bt pesticide into trees will cause the pesticide to express itself in every cell of the tree. Having this pesticide present in the environment constantly will create pests resistant to it, rendering the Bt useless. When Bt was introduced into cotton, it was found to be exuding from the roots in high concentrations, negatively affecting the soil food web. In forest ecosystems, the soils are fungally dominated and trees require fungi for their survival. Introducing high levels of Bt into forest soils via the trees' roots, or through the decomposition of leaves, needles and, branches would disrupt the delicate soil food web of the forest.

The Trees Fight Back
Trees are vastly complex organisms, and scientists are having a hard time domesticating them. Many experiments have ended in failure due to the silencing of the inserted gene or when the gene causes unwanted and unexpected changes. An example of gene silencing occurred in a test plot of aspens in Germany. The trees were genetically engineered to be sterile, and the test was given a five-year permit since this species was known to begin flowering in seven years. Some of the trees silenced the inserted gene and began flowering at three years of age. In another aspen experiment designed to reduce the lignin content, many of the trees inexplicably increased their growth and changed the wood color from white to red.

Forced Sterilization of Nature
The biotech industry wants to create sterile trees for many reasons. The one they tout the most is the green-wash claim that sterility will make genetic pollution impossible. The reality is that trees expend about 25 percent of their energy in procreation, and engineering sterility will allow the trees to grow faster. If the industry can decrease the crop rotation of GE trees in the US to 10 years or less; they will be considered agricultural crops, which have much less stringent regulations.

Sterility is most likely impossible to accomplish based on gene silencing and the effects of environmental conditions throughout the life of a tree. In addition, many trees do not solely reproduce via seeds or fruit. The most intensely engineered trees, Poplars and Cottonwoods, will sprout from branches that break off in the wind, as well as their trunks and roots. The potential for GE trees to spread genetic pollution to native trees is unlimited.

Lack of Precision
The process of genetic engineering is accomplished using bio-ballistics, otherwise known as the gene gun. In this process, the target gene is literally shot into the host DNA with the hope that it will successfully lodge into the host cell. This process is so imprecise that it takes 10,000 gene gun blasts to achieve one successful insertion. Even these successes are uncertain. A tree can be profoundly affected depending on where the target gene lodges in the host DNA. Problems may not be immediately noticeable but instead triggered later by environmental factors.

The target gene is packaged with a viral promoter gene and a marker gene, which are resistant to antibiotics. Once they have been shot into the host cells, the cells are then bathed in antibiotics to detect which ones have the desired DNA. GE science is based on a flawed 40 year old theory; Crick's Central Dogma. According to the theory, DNA genes are in total control of inheritance. One gene produces a particular protein, which produces a particular inherited trait. This theory was disproven with the completion of the human genome-mapping project when it was discovered that we have about 30,000 genes, almost the same number of genes as corn. It was expected that humans would have between 100,000 and 300,000 genes based on the amount of inherited traits in humans.

Types of Trees Being Engineered
When it comes to genetically engineering trees, the biotech corporations are focusing mostly on the pulp and paper species, including cottonwood, poplar, radiata pine, eucalyptus and larch. Fruit trees are also being engineered, and in Hawaii, they are already producing GE papaya, which has been on the market for a few years. The following species are also of interest to the biotech industry and are being tested in open field trials: spruce, almond, apple, aspen, birch, banana, cocoa, citrus, chestnut, elm, herea, kiwifruit, pear, plum, sandalwood, Scots pine, walnut, sweet-gums and coffee. Some traits they are engineering into fruit tree species are: bitterness-free citrus and accelerating the rate at which fruit ripens, so it will ripen all at once. This will cut down on the number of workers required to pick the fruits. In coffee, they are also trying to create a decaffeinated coffee bean. In addition, pharmaceutical banana trees are being engineered which will produce vaccines in the fruit, turning them into profitable drugs.

Oil Company Involvement
With GE trees being designed for rapid growth, disease resistance and built-in pesticides, they play right into the hands of the corporate schemers who dreamed up carbon offset forestry. Corporations like Shell, Toyota and British Petroleum are involved in the research and development of GE trees so they can continue their polluting ways in the northern hemisphere. The idea is that fast growing GE tree plantations in the southern hemisphere will sequester vast amounts of carbon, thereby offsetting the corporate pollution. This myth has already been debunked by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Resources Institute who showed that plantations in tropical forests can store only one-fourth of the carbon that native forests can. Currently, there are more than 10 million acres of carbon offset plantations around the world.

University Involvement
Universities across the US are involved in GE tree research and development. In the Pacific Northwest, universities such as Washington State, Oregon State, and Western State are conducting open-air field trials of GE trees. Many of these universities are obtaining funding through grants from the Department of Energy, the US Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation and the EPA, as well as biotech and timber corporations.

If you are interested in finding the locations of GE crop test fields, start by checking out the websites at www.nbiap.vt.edu.

US Forest Service Involvement
The US Forest Service (USFS) is also heavily involved in GE tree research and development through the Institute of Forest Genetics based in Placerville, California. The USFS is working in collaboration with many university researchers and corporations to map the genomes of Loblolly pine, Douglas fir and poplar species, as well as working on the genetics of the white pine blister rust.

Where Will GE Trees be Grown
GE trees are designed for massive plantations. In the US, these plantations will be concentrated in the coastal Southeast and in the Pacific Northwest (where there are already tens of thousands of acres of hybrid poplar plantations). However, most GE plantations will be in the southern hemisphere where the trees will grow faster and the environmental laws are lax or nonexistent: In Tobasco and Veracruz Mexico, the company Planfosur has 51, 891 acres of eucalyptus planted, some of which are genetically engineered. Satellite photos of the global South show that 75 percent of the current tree plantations were native forests just 10 years earlier. GE trees will cause even further deforestation of native forests.

Facilitating The Frankentree Failure
None of these frankentrees have yet been commercialized in the US. We have a tremendous opportunity to halt this massive threat to our native forests and the biodiversity of the planet. The threat is real, and our actions to stop it must be tactical and effective.

The Global Alliance Against Genetically Engineered Trees is calling for a global ban on the release of any GE trees into the environment; an end to the funding of research and development of GE trees; an end to the patenting of trees, their genes and indigenous people's traditional knowledge.

If you work in an organization, insert similar language into your campaign literature or demands against corporate targets. Educate yourself and your community about the possible environmental and health effects of GE trees and the need to ban them. We need a strong platform from the environmental community. Simply labeling or safety testing will not work - we need a total ban.

Take action against the corporations, federal agencies and universities developing GE trees, as well as the investors who are funding their research. The venture capitalists that invest in biotech are especially vulnerable and can easily be scared into pulling out if we make investing in biotech a risky prospect. With 50 percent of the trees in the US cut down for paper production and the bulk of GE tree research focused on the species used to make paper it is time to start using tree-free paper made from hemp or Kenaf.

For more info or to get involved, contact Northwest Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, (503) 239-6841; www.nwrage.org.

Populus and pseudotsuga are two species of trees targeted by the biotech industry for commodification and encourage you to end this madness by methods of your choosing. They live in many different ecosystems all over North America and work tirelessly to prevent the gene manipulators from creating a franken forest future. Nighttime gardeners make investing in biotech a risky project.