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GM tree releases

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  • Denny Haldeman
    Hi all..This is from the WWF in Switzerland, part of a 250k document. It shows the northwest US as a hotbed of GM tree trials worthy of our monitoring. You ll
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 1, 2000
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      Hi all..This is from the WWF in Switzerland, part of a 250k document.
      It shows the northwest US as a hotbed of GM tree trials worthy of our
      monitoring. You'll note that "sterility" is low on the list of traits
      they are manipulating which may be a cause of concern for widespread
      release of mutant traits to native vegetation and other life. If anyone
      is interested in the full piece, let me know. My current version sent
      me, is mostly unreadable but I am trying to obtain another copy. The
      commas and quotation marks are corrupted in the below translation.
      The pulp and paper and biomass energy industries are investing huge
      amounts of energy and money and will fully open this GM pandora's box
      before we know it. Denny

      3.1.1 Global overview
      Based on a preliminary survey there have been 116 confirmed field
      trials, involving at least 24 tree species, in 17 countries since 1988.
      The survey incorporated tree species for both fruit and timber
      production, although 76 per cent fell into the latter category. A map
      illustrating the distribution of GM tree field trials, by country, is
      presented as Figure 3.1.

      3.3 GM technology and forests in Canada and the US
      By far and away the largest number of GM tree releases via field trials
      has taken place in the United States and Canada: 61 per cent of the
      worldwide total. Between 1998 and 1999, 71 confirmed releases have taken
      place. Like the European Union, the USDA maintains a comprehensive
      database that contains information and status reports on all GM release
      applications (whether approved or denied). All but one of the confirmed
      North American releases have taken place in the United States, and by
      far the majority of these (over 56 per cent) are located in Oregon,
      California and Washington State. Ten other states, principally in the
      North-east, have also established trials. Like Europe, the majority of
      trials are under the auspices of government or academic research
      institutions, and only 13 per cent are directly under the control of
      four private sector companies (Union Camp, Westvaco, Weyerhauser and

      Interestingly, compared with Europe, there has been a marked difference
      in terms of modified traits. The majority of the releases in Canada and
      the US have been designed to evaluate insect or disease resistance (53
      per cent) and herbicide tolerance (17 per cent). There appears to be
      limited interest in traits such as sterility (4 per cent), although
      engineered sterility is often used by GM proponents as an example of how
      the industry has built environmental safeguards into their trials. There
      is also a more limited species range being tested than in Europe. Only
      eight tree species have been confirmed as being transgenic, and of these
      three are fruit trees. Half of all trials have been on poplar species,
      followed by American black walnut (14 per cent). Four trials of Papaya
      have been released in Hawaii. Finally, 80 per cent of all trials in
      North America have been released since 1995.

      Box 3.1 Forestry-biotech joint ventures: a prelude to commercial

      Over the past four years, three important joint ventures between
      forestry and biotech companies have been agreed. While the formation of
      these consortia has passed relatively unnoticed, their significance
      should not be underestimated, for it represents the transition of forest
      biotechnology from minor to major league.

      Fletcher Challenge Forests, International Paper, Monsanto and Westvaco
      Announced 6 April 1999 and worth US$ 60 million over five years, this
      joint venture is perhaps the best known of the three forest-biotech
      consortia. The joint venture will seek to acquire genomic forestry
      intellectual property rights from universities, independent labs and
      others in order to position itself to market new advances in forest
      biotechnology. Obviously, its main area of interest concerns plantation
      species such as poplar, radiata and loblolly pine and eucalyptus.
      Targeted genetic improvements are herbicide tolerance, improved growth
      rates and product uniformity (especially fibre quality). Of all three
      consortia, its primary objective would appear to be the capture,
      application and marketing of genetic patents.

      Monfori Nusantra Established in 1996, this Indonesian company is a joint
      venture between Monsanto and ForBio, an Australian plant biotechnology
      company. The primary objective is wood fibre production and a new
      automated plant that enables mass propagation of planting stock from
      tissue culture has already been opened. The aim is to produce 10 million
      seedlings per year. Five trial sites have been established in Sumatra
      and Kalimantan, and initial results indicate that the rotation for
      species such as teak, acacia and eucalyptus could be halved. Little has
      been heard of the initiative over the past year and its plans may have
      suffered as a result of the Asian economic crisis. Nevertheless, the
      ForBio website still publicises the relationship.

      GenFor SA Announced on 10 March 1999 and worth an initial investment of
      US$ 5 million, this is a joint venture between Fundaci�n Chile,
      Interlink Associates (USA) and Silvagen Inc (Canada). The consortium is
      partly financed by the Chilean Development Agency (Corfo) and seeks to
      focus primarily on the development of transgenic radiata pine that has
      enhanced pest and disease resistance, faster growth rates and better
      pulping qualities. The first field trials of transgenic radiata pine
      will probably be for resistance to the European shoot moth and are due
      to start in early 2000.

      3.1.2 Global growth in GM-tree field trials
      The first confirmed record of a wild release of a genetically modified
      tree species is that of a poplar trial in Gent, Belgium in 1988. The
      first half of the 1990s witnessed a modest growth in research trials
      that never exceeded five per year. However, over the same period
      biotechnologists had extended their trials to incorporate 11 tree
      species, although they continued to focus on a narrow range of traits,
      namely herbicide resistance and disease/pest resistance. The latter half
      of the 1990s has seen an exponential increase in the number of trials
      and in the number of species tested. In 1998 alone - the last year
      sampled - there were 44 new trials, an increase of more than 50 per cent
      on the cumulative total of all preceding GM tree trials.

      Figure 3.2 Number of new GM tree (timber & fruit) releases per year

      3.1.3 GM tree species
      There are now at least 24 species that have been subject to transgenic
      modification and released into the environment, albeit through
      controlled field trials. Table 3.1 gives details of the species that
      have been modified and field tested, including the first recorded year
      of their release. It is interesting to note that the last three years
      (1996-1998) saw the number of trial species more than double. Other
      sources have reported more extensive lists of transgenic tree species,
      including almond (Prunus amygdalus), cocoa (Theobroma cocoa), coffee
      (Coffea arabica), elm (Ulmus spp.), larch (Larix spp.) and pear (Pyrus
      communis). However, no independent verification of field trials for
      these species could be obtained, and it is likely that some of these
      additional reports refer only to greenhouse trials.

      4.3 The Regulatory Framework in the US
      The agencies primarily responsible for regulating biotechnology in the
      United States are the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the
      Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug
      Administration. GM products are regulated according to their intended
      use, with some products falling under the remit of more than one agency.
      In the case of GM trees the agency responsible is the USDA; however,
      where modified traits may have an environmental impact - for example,
      insect resistance (Bt plants) or herbicide tolerance - the EPA will also
      conduct a regulatory review.

      The USDA regulates novel plant release through its Animal Plant Health
      Inspection Agency (APHIS). Applicants for GM releases must provide
      details of the organism, the genes transformed, their products and the
      purpose of release. In the case of field trials the experimental design
      and precautions against accidental escape of the GMO must also be
      included in the application. APHIS may also demand special precautions
      such as closed containers for transport to field site and field cages to
      minimise the risk of pollen escape. APHIS permits for release into the
      environment are usually issued or denied within 120 days and during that
      time state officials will inspect the facilities to determine security
      and operating conditions. Permits for field trials are renewed annually.

      Before commercialisation, genetically engineered plants must conform to
      standards set by State and Federal marketing statutes. There are no
      national requirements for varietal registration of new plants.

      6 Conclusions: WWF�s response to biotechnology in the forest sector
      6.1 The future of biotechnology
      It is becoming increasing difficult to determine how the GM issue will
      unfold over the next 18 months. Three months ago, this author maintained
      that while �GM trees posed a risk to biodiversity conservation, the main
      threat would continue to come from GM agriculture�. In the light of this
      scoping study, that statement, while still probably true, cannot be
      taken as definite. Indeed, many might argue that the whole GM issue is a
      �dead duck�, that companies have had their fingers well and truly burnt
      with the commercialisation of the technology and will now leave it
      alone. Recent reports that Monsanto is considering pulling GM trials out
      of the United Kingdom would seem to indicate that the high-profile
      campaign conducted by Greenpeace and others is set to result in a
      decisive victory.

      Such conclusions are ill considered, for while some biotechnology
      companies have suffered a number of setbacks in recent months - most
      notably from falling stock prices - neither the science of biotechnology
      nor the opportunities to commercialise innovation will go away. This has
      been recognised by many governments and may partly explain why a
      populist British government has, on this issue, set its face so firmly
      against a public which (mistakenly) believes that GM food crops pose a
      greater health risk than BSE. Governments are sure that biotechnology is
      one of the industries of the future and are particularly anxious not to
      lose the �innovation� race to other countries.

      The prospect of a quick media victory in Europe against GMOs should be
      treated with caution by the environmental movement. If Monsanto decides
      to pull out of the UK it is unlikely that the company will simply lick
      its wounds, sell off investments in biotechnology and return to the
      agrochemical business. It is more likely that GM technology will be
      driven more quickly into countries such as China and Brazil. While Asia
      has become the focus for calls for labelling of GM food products
      (Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea), China is reported as
      being more interested in the potential that biotechnology holds for an
      agricultural system required to feed and clothe over a billion people.
      Last year alone China is reported as planting over a million hectares of
      GM cotton. More worryingly, the Brazilian Association of Seed Producers
      (Abrasem) has estimated that illegally imported GM soybean seed might
      account for up to 10 percent of Brazil�s upcoming crop. Brazil currently
      has a moratorium on the commercial production of GM crops.

      It is also important to realise that much of the apparent success
      against the commercialisation of biotechnology is limited to food crops.
      While the British press made much of Deutsche Bank�s recent
      prognostication that �GMOs are dead�, what they failed to report was
      that the same review recommended that investors buy shares in
      biotechnology companies involved in the development and distribution of
      non-food crops.

      6.2 Biotechnology and the forest sector
      Although there is little to point to in the way of commercial
      production, biotechnology has already made its mark on the industrial
      forest sector. One can expect to see transgenic planting stock being
      released some time within the next couple of years. Even if the
      biotechnology/forest alliance picks up some collateral damage from the
      GM food crop debacle in Europe, this will largely be irrelevant as GM
      trees are probably set to make their commercial debut in Latin America
      and South-east Asia. In addition to Chile, Indonesia and possibly
      Brazil, the country to watch will be China. Its decision earlier this
      year to call a moratorium on the logging of natural forests and
      plantations in key water catchments has already had a knock-on effect
      within the region. It would be highly surprising if China has not
      already established a programme of research to help make good its
      internal timber deficit.

      While there are many similarities between the environmental threats
      posed by transgenic trees and those from GM agricultural crops (genetic
      pollution, invasiveness, effects on biodiversity and so-on) there are
      also six important issues that have largely been ignored:

      The time and location factor (ie trees as crops are long-lived
      perennials often located in remote areas where constant vigilance
      against unanticipated problems is difficult, if not impossible). GM
      forests may be managed in the centres of origin or close to natural
      species, increasing the likelihood of cross-pollination;
      The effect transgenic trees will have on long-term site productivity;
      the potential threat posed by international trade in transgenic
      roundwood to forest certification.
      Trees are likely to be keystone species in their environment and support
      more biodiversity than agricultural crops.
      Unlike agricultural crops, trees have not been subject to the same
      degree of domestication and research, and current knowledge regarding
      the biology and ecology of tree species is inadequate. More independent
      research is needed into tree biology, forest ecology and the time and
      location factor.
      The vast majority of current field trials only examine the direct
      effects of the manipulated traits. Wider questions concerning the
      environmental impact of accelerated growth or completely sterile trees
      are not considered, yet it may be that these associated risks are more
      likely to occur (a common feature in the history of land use
      intensification) and therefore pose the greatest ecological threats.

      The whole situation concerning GM labelling and trade is unclear at
      present. It is therefore unwise to speculate just how a �three-way
      tango� between international trade, certification and transgenic
      roundwood might be played out, although it is well to recognise that the
      band has already struck up the tune. It is clear that the FSC will have
      to take the whole biotechnology issue very seriously over the next two
      or three years. With Home Depot recently indicating that it wants to
      source its timber from well-managed sources by 2005, there may soon be
      pressure from all sides (not just the US Department of Trade) for
      explicit reasons why the FSC precludes transgenic trees from

      6.3 Recommendations
      In May 1999, WWF formulated a position statement on GMOs. It called for
      a moratorium on the use or release of GMOs until ecological interactions
      are fully researched; transparent comprehensive environmental impact
      assessments of planned releases; and properly regulated monitoring and
      control of gene technology. The position paper was considered and
      balanced. The following recommendations will help resolve whether
      biotechnology has a role in the forest sector.

      It is far too early to judge whether biotechnology can make a safe and
      effective contribution to the forest sector. Governments should
      therefore declare a moratorium on the commercial release of genetically
      modified tree species until i) properly agreed national and
      international safeguards have been put in place and ii) the risks
      concerning the behaviour of both novel traits and modified tree species,
      over time, have been fully quantified.

      Governments and industry must pursue a more open and honest policy on
      biotechnology in the forest sector. Transparency and inclusiveness
      should be key features of both regulation setting and supervision, and
      this can only be achieved through involving civil society in a public

      International regulation
      At the international level, governments should undertake to break the
      deadlock on the Biosafety Protocol within the Convention on
      Biodiversity. They should accept the Convention as the foremost
      international agreement on GMOs and until more reliable information is
      available international regulation must be of a precautionary nature.

      With a few exceptions, there is a lack of knowledge concerning the
      genetics, physiology and ecology of most tree species. In such cases,
      modification of a tree species� genome must be complemented by auxiliary
      research that addresses the basic biological gaps in our knowledge
      concerning that species.

      Continuing field trials must be re-designed to examine not only the
      behaviour of the introduced trait but also the broader environmental
      impact of the modified tree species.

      Research must be continued over a sufficient period of time to enable
      researchers to quantify risk throughout a standard rotation period.
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