Thursday, March 10, 2005


Forests are the world's storehouses of genetic diversity, arable soil and carbon. But GMO researchers have turned their sights on those forests. While their aims for the present seem focused on creating fast-growing trees that can be profitably harvested for pulp and paper companies, their range of interests is bound to widen. One possible target is to grow forests as carbon sinks to reduce the effects of global warming by drawing carbon dioxide out of the air. Of course, it doesn't occur to the researchers that they might be exchanging one danger for an even worse one.

The technology behind genetically modified trees carries many of the same risks as the technology for GMO food crops. Though we don't eat trees (except perhaps in the form of tree fruit), GMO trees pose special risks to genetic diversity. The scientists who work on them already admit that they will pollute the genetic pool of close relatives. The researchers are imparting herbicide resistance to trees and engineering pesticide-producing trees that kill insects that eat their leaves. One result could be trees that become "superweeds," crowding out other varieties. Another could be the devastation of the forest ecosystem as links in the food chain are eliminated and other insects and animals that depend on those links decline.

Perhaps the most perplexing question is who will own trees contaminated by genes from GMO trees. So far the courts say that the company which created the gene owns them and can sue anyone who raises them even unknowingly. This is a key question because unlike food crops which rarely grow higher than 6 feet, trees grow much taller and spread their pollen over much broader areas.

The solution say some scientists is to create sterile trees. Sounds great until you begin to think about the entire chain of life that depends of the seeds and blossoms and nuts produced by trees. "Green deserts" is one term being preemptively applied to such a forest.

But perhaps the most frightening aspect of GMO trees is what is frightening about all current GMO research. Researchers don't really know exactly what they are doing. The methods of placing genetic material into a cell are inexact, and their results are not entirely known. One technique involves a gene gun--a genetic shotgun really--that shoots the desired gene at a group of cells hoping some will take up the gene. The process--a shrapnel-like approach to gene alteration--may damage the target plant's genome in unintended ways producing unknown genetic alterations, awakening dormant genes or producing traits that may not, in the case of trees, show up until many years later.

Other techniques involve using viruses and bacteria to carry genetic material inside the cell. This is another crapshoot that threatens to create novel plant and animal diseases for which there may be no natural resistance among any population.

A final danger is that the theory that one gene produces one and only one protein has been disapproved. That means that altering one gene cannot be said to predictably alter only one protein production process in a living organism. (These proteins run virtually everything in an organism.) Genetic modification can therefore alter the production of many proteins even when only one gene is altered. That could produce unknown toxins and unpredictable allergic reactions from foods.

But the disturbing truth is that we will only find out about this is after the fact. There are no testing requirements for GMO organisms, at least in the United States, since they are deemed to be equivalent to their natural relatives. This notion is patently false. But for those who hold the patents, it is a profitable fiction--at least until the landscape and the human and animal populations are devasted by a GMO experiment that finally produces a widespread crisis.

The Christian Science Monitor, The Southern Forests Network and The World Rainforest Movement explain in more detail the controversy.

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