Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or genetically “engineered” (GE) foods, are live organisms whose genetic components have been artificially manipulated in a laboratory setting through creating unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and even viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.
GMO proponents claim that genetic engineering is “safe and beneficial,” and that it advances the agricultural industry. They also say that GMOs help ensure the global food supply and sustainability. But is there any truth to these claims? I believe not. For years, I’ve stated the belief that GMOs pose one of the greatest threats to life on the planet. Genetic engineering is NOT the safe and beneficial technology that it is touted to be.
If the biotech industry has its way, 184 million acres of native forests around the world will be bulldozed down and replaced with plantations of genetically engineered (GE) trees.
On these proposed GE tree plantations, there are essentially no other plants, insects, birds, or wildlife — just rows upon rows of cloned Frankentrees growing at accelerated rates on a crust of dead, lifeless soil above dwindling groundwater reserves.
Trees are being genetically engineered with unnatural characteristics, such as the ability to kill insects, tolerate colder temperatures, resist toxic chemicals, and grow faster — but these “advantages” come at an unacceptable price.
“Synthetic Forests” is a documentary exposing the truth about GE trees. In this short but hard-hitting film, leading scientists discuss the devastating and irreversible impacts of allowing GE trees into our global ecosystem.
Why Genetically Engineer Trees?
Industry wants to market designer trees with a variety of traits that will increase their income-generating capacity — at least over the short-term. Trees have varying degrees of commercial value, depending on their characteristics, as well as how quickly they can be harvested.
For example, some trees like the fast-growing Eucalyptus are being engineered to grow even faster.
In collusion with the paper industry, trees are being engineered to have lower lignin, as this natural polymer must be removed from wood pulp before the pulp can be made into paper, which is an expensive part of the process.
The problem is, lignin is what gives trees their structural integrity — it’s what allows trees to stand strong in wind and other harsh weather conditions, and to withstand diseases and damage from insect and animal browsing.
Low-lignin trees are weaker and less able to withstand these environmental stresses and do not optimally nourish important fungi once they are put back into the soil. Dead low-lignin trees also decompose faster, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere more quickly, which contributes to climate change.
The best thing for trees is to stop using them for paper. Paper doesn’t need to be made from wood pulp, because far more Earth-friendly materials exist, such as agricultural wastes, recycled material, hemp, tobacco, and even banana leaves.
Fruit trees are also being genetically altered so they can be marketed as “disease resistant.”
However, despite these marketing claims, many GE trees and other plants are actually weaker and more susceptible to disease than their natural counterparts and end up needing massive amounts of chemicals to remain viable, usually in the form of herbicides and pesticides.
Not only that, contamination of wild and organic fruit trees by GE genes has been devastating to nearby wild groves. For example, cross-contamination by GE papaya plantations has crushed Hawaii’s wild, organic papaya industry.
Expert Says Genetic Engineering Is Based on ‘Lousy Science’
The problem with genetic engineering has to do with the fact that GE plants and animals are created using horizontal gene transfer (also called horizontal inheritance), as contrasted with natural reproduction, which involves vertical gene transfer.
Vertical gene transfer, or vertical inheritance, is the transmission of genes from the parent generation to offspring via sexual or asexual reproduction, i.e., breeding a male and female from one species.
By contrast, horizontal gene transfer involves injecting a gene from one species into a completely different species, which yields unexpected and often unpredictable results due to the wake of mutations it generates.
Proponents of genetic engineering assume they can apply the principles of vertical inheritance to horizontal inheritance. But according to award-winning scientist and geneticist David Suzuki, Ph.D. this assumption is flawed in just about every possible way and is “just lousy science.”
Genes don’t function in a vacuum — they act in the context of the entire genome. Whole sets of genes are turned on and off in order to arrive at a particular organism, and the entire orchestration is an activated genome.
When you change a genome, nature can respond in unpredictable ways. It’s a dangerous mistake to assume a gene’s traits are expressed properly, regardless of where they’re inserted. The safety of genetic engineering is only a hypothesis, and in science, hypotheses often end up being wrong.
The Spread of Seed and Pollen Is Uncontrollable
Genetically engineered trees are vastly different from other annual GE crops like corn and soybeans because trees can live for decades and even centuries in the wild. Once GMO trees escape the confines of their plantation, they are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate.
Many tree species, such as pines and poplars, can spread their pollen and seeds over great distances. Pollen can blow hundreds or even thousands of miles, dusting native trees with GMO pollen.
Consequently, the risks, regulation, and assessment needs of GMO trees may be even greater than those of more seasonal crops like GMO corn and soy. Disrupting forest ecosystems endangers the health of the entire planet.
Native forests have been called the “lungs of the Earth,” supporting food and wildlife habitats everywhere. Forests absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, filter water and release it back into the atmosphere, as well as building the soil.
With GE trees, contamination of native forests is both inevitable and irreversible. Many tree species regularly interbreed with similar species, and some are highly invasive, including Eucalyptus — a “bully” that’s spread out of control across California.
Once wild tree species are contaminated, GE trees could take over vast geographical areas, and there’s no do-over — you can recall a dangerous drug, but you can’t recall a dangerous tree until it is too late.
GMO Trees May Be the ‘Greatest Threat to Forests Since the Chain Saw’
Genetically engineered trees threaten native forests, which are already endangered by mining, agriculture, pollution and other factors. When you lose a forest, you don’t just lose trees — you destroy an entire web of life.
Critical biodiversity is lost.
We don’t even know the extent of what we’re losing, as many species of plants, animals and insects have yet to be studied. This biodiversity may hold undiscovered cures for cancer and other diseases. Loss of native forests also has negative effects on indigenous communities and world climate.
The health effects of GE seeds and pollen introduce additional concerns. Birds eat the seeds, and we have no idea how they’ll be affected. People inhale the pollen — how will our immune systems react? No one knows because it hasn’t been studied. Entire Filipino villages have been stricken with a mysterious illness thought related to Bt-corn pollen, but an official investigation was never done.
In addition to that, as noted in the film, only about 1 percent of sprayed herbicides and pesticides hit their target — the rest ends up in our food and water. Like GE food crops, GE trees are heavily reliant upon these chemicals. One half million pounds of toxic chemicals already rain down on the U.S. each year in rainwater — much of which is atrazine. Arial spraying of atrazine is used almost exclusively in forestry.
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) advises physicians to warn patients about the potential health dangers of eating GMO food, including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system.
GE trees can only add to these risks.
The majority of research and development on GE trees has come from a company called ArborGen, the industrial “love child” from a tryst between Monsanto, International Paper, Westvaco, and Fletcher Forests. ArborGen is the largest US corporate proponent for GE trees and is hoping to follow Monsanto’s blueprint for commercializing GE crops. If GE trees are approved by the USDA, ArborGen is projected to grow 2,000 percent by 2017.
A scientist from the Center for Food Safety recently exposed a secret letter from the USDA to ArborGen, dated August 2014. In it, the USDA made the unprecedented decision to allow ArborGen to pursue unregulated commercial cultivation of a loblolly pine genetically engineered for altered wood composition. The trees could be planted anywhere in the U.S. without public knowledge or access to information about them.
Loblolly pines are native across 14 states throughout the southeastern US and are grown in plantations around the world. Their pollen is known to travel for hundreds of miles. Groups from around the world are rising in protest, as this is the first GE tree to be legalized without any government or public oversight or risk assessment.
According to ecologist/biologist Rachel Smolker, Ph.D., of Biofuelwatch:
“If these GE loblolly pines are released on a large scale in the U.S., there will be no way to stop them from cross contaminating native loblolly pines. This is deliberate, irreversible and completely irresponsible contamination of the environment with unknown and possibly devastating consequences.
Forest ecosystems are barely understood, and the introduction of trees with genes for modified wood characteristics could have all manner of negative impacts on soils, fungi, insects, wildlife, songbirds, and public health. And all this for short term commercial profit.”
In addition to loblolly pines, ArborGen is also seeking USDA approval for Eucalyptus trees engineered for cold tolerance. If granted, ArborGen plans to sell hundreds of millions of seedlings to be planted every year across the southeastern US, from Texas to South Carolina. They are also promoting development of a GE American Chestnut tree that’s resistant to blight, as well as many others.
The Global Campaign to STOP GMO Trees
Genetically engineered tree plantations threaten to spoil native forests, displace local farmers and destroy sustainable economies. Pollen and seeds from GE trees are impossible to control, with potentially grim ecological consequences.
Self-sufficient communities will be forced to leave their land, adding to the growth of city slums.
Despite knowledge of these probable outcomes, the biotech industry, with the full backing of the U.S. government, is pushing GE trees forward with ever-increasing zeal.
Fortunately, there is some good news on the horizon. Organizations from all over the world, and all angles of interest, have banded together to form a global network opposing GE trees. The Campaign to STOP GE Trees includes more than 200 organizations in 49 countries. If you care about this issue, please visit their website and sign their petition to the USDA. But don’t stop there! Following are several more things you can do to help preserve our native forests:
- Refrain from buying paper products made from trees/wood pulp; instead, buy recycled paper (toilet paper, tissue paper, writing paper, computer paper); Greenpeace and NRDC have handy downloadable guides for buying recycled, Earth-friendly paper products
- Reuse and recycle the paper products you do use
- Eliminate your need for toilet paper altogether by installing in a bidet
- Say no to napkins, especially when you’re handed a stack of them; use cleaning cloths instead of paper towels
- Cut back on printing; ask yourself if you really need to print a document; use both sides of a paper before tossing it; use old receipts for notes; reuse wrapping paper, or make your own from newsprint or magazines
- Opt out of the yellow pages
- Boycott the new GE apples (called “Arctic apples”) and GE potatoes, which just passed FDA inspection. For more information on GE apples, read “Genetically Engineered Apples: Any Way You Slice It, a Rotten Idea.” Choose only produce that you know is organic, preferably grown near you. The Center for Food Safety has a free Shopping Guide to Avoiding GE Foods.
For further information, please visit here, or:
- Center for Food Safety
- Institute for Responsible Technology
- World Rainforest Movement
- Indigenous Environmental Network
- Synthetic Forests
All images: Wikicommons