Forest Stewardship Council could open the door to the commercialisation of GMO trees
The global release of genetically engineered trees is closer than it has ever been. Ironically, it could be the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) — the organisation that claims to “promote the responsible management of the world’s forests” through its certification programme — that opens the door to the commercialisation of GMO trees (also referred to as GE trees, i.e. genetically engineered trees).
Many paper products around the world carry the FSC logo, signifying compliance with the Forest Stewardship Council’s standards. At the moment, this logo means that FSC-certified companies are not allowed to commercially plant GMO trees. However, FSC is preparing to revisit its prohibition on GMO trees.
FSC’s international General Assembly starts this week in Bali, Indonesia. FSC members will discuss a proposal that would have FSC directly oversee outdoor field tests of genetically engineered trees. These experiments would be the core of a new “genetic engineering learning process”.
In an article for Counterpunch, Lucy Sharratt of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) writes that if the FSC moves ahead with supervising field tests, they could be seen as responsible for any environmental impacts that could result. For instance, efforts to contain field trials can fail and could result in GMO contamination of forests.
However, genetic engineering remains controversial among FSC members, and environmental groups warn that the field tests themselves pose serious risks to forests and other ecosystems. These risks are explained in a new report, “The Global Status of Genetically Engineered Tree Development: A Growing Threat”, from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) and the Campaign to STOP GE Trees.
Future of forests at stake
The new report argues that GMO contamination is inevitable, and that “genetically engineered trees present "serious risks and vast uncertainties". The report says, "The processes of genetic engineering often result in unanticipated changes. The potential for unexpected genetic outcomes and environmental effects would increase and multiply over the long life of trees, because of the environmental extremes trees face, and because so many species interact with trees. The ability of trees to spread pollen and seeds over long distances increases the range of potential environmental and social impacts, across borders and in violation of Indigenous sovereignty.
“The release of genetically engineered trees would be a threat to forests and forest ecosystems, with impacts on many local communities and Indigenous peoples. The potential negative impacts could be profound and irreversible.”
For example, the report discusses how genetic engineering processes can result in unintended effects on trees. Even intended changes at the DNA level may impact the behaviour of trees in unexpected ways, such how trees respond to stresses like drought or extreme heat.
Trees and forests are highly complex, as is genetic engineering. Because there are so many gaps in our knowledge, environmental groups such as the World Rainforest Movement (WRM) argue that any release of genetically engineered trees would be a large-scale environmental experiment. “The consequences would be unpredictable and potentially irreversible,” said Lizzie Díaz of WRM in Uruguay.
The report details which trees are being engineered for which traits and which countries are next in line to try to plant GMO trees commercially. It names the companies and institutions that are engaged in genetically engineering trees.
More glyphosate tolerance
All too predictably, the first GMO plantation tree in line to be released commercially is FuturaGene’s glyphosate-tolerant eucalyptus tree in Brazil. Use of this GMO tree will likely result in increased glyphosate use on eucalyptus plantations that already negatively impact the environment as well as many local communities and Indigenous peoples.
Meanwhile in the US, University researchers have applied to government authorities to release a GMO chestnut tree engineered for blight resistance. If approved, this GMO tree would be first-ever GMO plant released with the purpose of spreading freely through wild ecosystems. Its release would be a large-scale experiment, and there will be little or no potential to track or reverse its spread.
Read the new report: https://cban.ca/the-global-status-of-genetically-engineered-tree-development-a-growing-threat/
Read Lucy Sharratt’s article: https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/10/10/trading-in-forest-stewardship/
93 Groups call on FSC to uphold GMO trees prohibition: https://stopgetrees.org/93-groups-call-on-fsc-to-uphold-ge-trees-prohibition/
Sign petition to stop release of GMO trees in Canada: https://cban.ca/take-action/stop-ge-trees/
Image of a eucalyptus plantation in Aracruz, Brazil, by Chris Lang via Flickr, licensed under the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Licence. Even without GMO herbicide-tolerant trees, chemical use is heavy. Lang comments: “Chemical herbicides ensure that little or nothing other than eucalyptus trees grows in Aracruz's plantations. The workers who mix and apply these chemicals face serious health risks.”