The proponents of biotechnology industry claim that trees that are genetically altered grow faster and yield better quality of wood in extreme temperatures. Thus they are a boon to forestry in dealing with climate change.
The first field trials of GE trees were started in Belgium in 1988, when researchers began to develop poplar trees that were herbicide resistant and that could grow faster. In 2002, China established commercial GE poplar trees plantation as a strategy to address the issue of deforestation. Initially GE trees were established in 300 hectares, and now China has embraced the GE technology on a large scale, integrating this into forestry sector. Latin American countries like Brazil and Argentina, the forerunners in GM food crops are also working on GE trees to enhance the production of pulp and paper.
Is GE trees safer than GM crops?
For: The proponents of the technology claim that GE trees are safer and there is no need to fear about negative consequences. Already the United Nations has approved plantations of GE trees as carbon sinks under Kyoto Protocol’s clean development mechanism. With this stamp of approval, many countries would like to adopt the technology and establish GE plantations.
Environmentalists state that this technology poses as serious a threat as GM crops. The trees are perennial, that live longer than agricultural crops. The changes in the metabolism of trees may occur many years after they are planted, and trees are wild, undomesticated. This makes it difficult to decipher as to how the introduced gene will behave in natural environment. This fact implies that the ecological risks associated with GE trees are far greater than the agricultural crops. It has also been documented that the tree pollen travels a distance of more than 600 km. The probability that the GE tree pollen is likely to contaminate vast expanses of native forests with a wide variety of destructive traits may be a threat to ecological balance and the existing biodiversity of the tropical forests in global south. The contaminated pollen might pose threat to honey bees, adversely impacting pollination in the wild and on agriculture crops.
Who are behind developing GE trees and why?
It is ArborGen a subsidiary of Monsanto, oil companies like British Petroleum and Chevron that are investing in this technology. For these companies GE trees offer a viable alternate to fossil fuels as GE trees could produce ethanol, a green fuel. As the ethanol produced from food stocks came under attack, the companies see bright future in non-food cellulose feedstock like GE trees.
The first experiment with genetically engineered tree was with rubber tree developed by the Rubber Research Institute in Kerala. The GE rubbers are better adapted to drought resistance and increased environment stress tolerance. This will help to establish rubber in non- traditional areas where the conditions are not favourable. Ironically the field trials for GE rubber trees were approved by the then environmental minister (Mr. Jairam Ramesh). Ministry asserted that the genetically modified trees posed lesser threat in comparison to the food crops. This assumption is baseless as the seeds of rubber tree are used as cattle feed, that gets into the food chain through milk. Similarly, Kerala is one of those regions that produce large quantity of rubber honey from rubber plantations. Kerala, a GM free state worried about the implications of GE rubber on biodiversity, has voiced its concern about bio safety issues. Now the rubber trees are being experimented in Maharashtra.
These developments show the predominance of the western forestry science that lays emphasis on forests as a commercial entity to produce wood and pulp. Diverse forests were simplified by the removal of multiple species and establishing monocultures that had commercial value. Already the country’s landscape is scarred with millions of hectares of teak and eucalypts monoculture plantations. This approach has had negative consequences for the environment, biodiversity and the local indigenous people. The same trend will be reinforced with the establishment of GE tree plantations, leading to further devastation of the natural environment and forests.