The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has a study under way to consider the “potential for biotechnology to address forest health.” Presentations, panelists and participants have included representatives from the U.S. Forest Service; Departments of Agriculture and Energy; academics in forest biology, tree biotechnology, genetics and ethics; indigenous peoples; and others involved in the issue of preserving America’s forests.
That many forests in the United States are suffering health crises is not in question. Much of this troubling condition, however, has come as a result of human activities. The global trade in wood chips, raw logs and live trees has imported invasive plants, disease and insects. Over-logging and soil compaction make natural forest regeneration difficult. And acid rain from Midwest smokestacks kills off the mountaintop forests of the Northeast.
Other damaging activities actually were intended to “help” the forests. Suppressing natural wildfires, for example, served to build up vast stores of fuel in the forests, resulting in unprecedented and devastating firestorms. Salvage logging of the American chestnut while the chestnut blight was rampaging likely killed off chestnuts resistant to the blight along with the rest — a double jeopardy for this majestic tree.
The use of biotechnology in forests, as the National Academies is examining, is yet another ill-conceived human intervention likely to add to, not alleviate, forest health crises. The body is debating the intentional release of trees genetically engineered in ways that could never occur in nature, with no knowledge of the long-term social or ecological risks.
Forests are incredibly complex ecosystems that we barely understand. Trees live for decades or even centuries. They can spread their pollen and seeds up to hundreds of miles. They interact with pollinators, songbirds, insects, mammals, not to mention human communities that depend on them.
Genes are not restricted to one single trait and within their genome they alter their functions in response to external and internal changes and stresses. How genetically engineered tree genes will respond in a wild forest ecosystem to environmental stresses years or decades from now is impossible to know.
The Federation of German Scientists points this out: “A review of the scientific literature shows that, due to the complexity of trees as organisms with large habitats and numerous interactions, currently no meaningful and sufficient risk assessment of GE trees is possible, and that especially a trait-specific risk assessment is not appropriate.”
The risks of tampering with the genes of trees are unknown and unknowable. Yet the GE American chestnut is planned for release into forests with the intention of contaminating wild trees with their engineered pollen. The goal: replace wild American chestnuts with engineered ones. If these GE trees are approved, wild American chestnut trees that remain might disappear altogether. If something does go wrong, there will be no way to reverse the problem. The forests would suffer yet another potentially catastrophic setback at the hands of humans.
This is why geneticists, foresters, biologists, agronomists, indigenous peoples, farmers and countless others have denounced the threats of genetically engineered trees for nearly 20 years.
We can only hope that the National Academies will recognize what science and common sense make clear — the most logical step is to prohibit GE trees since they are completely unproven and the potential dangers are far too great.
The National Academies study comes as the Department of Agriculture is considering a petition by a GE tree company to sell billions of freeze-tolerant, genetically-engineered eucalyptus tree seedlings for plantations from South Carolina to Texas. The South is too cold for eucalyptus trees, so they must be engineered with freeze tolerance to survive. Eucalyptus trees, not native to this hemisphere, are well-documented for invasiveness, freshwater depletion and extreme flammability. The lethal combination of drought, heat wave and eucalyptus plantations in Chile and Portugal last year contributed to record-breaking firestorms that killed dozens.
During the USDA public comment period last summer, nearly 284,000 people asked the department to reject GE eucalyptus trees. Since 2001, there have been dozens of protests against GE trees across the United States and around the world.
Claiming defense of their communities, the women of the Rural Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil take action against GE trees and tree plantations every year on International Women’s Day. Field trials of GE trees in New Zealand, France and the United States have been destroyed. Protesters in many countries have been arrested. Even the United Nations has passed resolutions warning countries of the dangers of GE trees and calling for them to be grown only in confinement. There is no forest certification body that will certify GE trees or their products as sustainable.
So GE tree proponents are trying a new angle — the idea of GE trees for forest health — but people are not buying it. Rising numbers of people insist that GE trees have no place in our forests.
Few argue whether we should protect and restore forests. Human evolution is interwoven with forests. They regulate and stabilize water flow and weather patterns, enrich soils, prevent erosion and sequester carbon. They provide food, medicine, shelter, fuel, livelihoods, recreation and sanctuary for diverse peoples around the world. Forests have made life on Earth possible.
Attempts to promote forest health by circumventing evolution and genetically engineering trees, however, is bound to fail, with potentially irreversible impacts on the very ecosystems they ostensibly are intended to help. Any real strategy to address forest health crises must confront the underlying causes and include impacted communities in the decision-making process.
Rachel Smolker is a co-director of Biofuelwatch and is on the board of Global Forest Coalition. Anne Petermann is executive director of Global Justice Ecology Project and coordinator of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees. Rachel Kijewski is a GE trees campaigner for Global Justice Ecology Project and a member of the Campaign to Stop GE Trees Steering Committee.