Date: Tue, 30 Nov 2004 12:36:57 -0500
From: Orin Langelle
Subject: GE Trees in Christian Science Monitor*
Below is a Christian Science Monitor article on GE trees- they are doing an
online poll, so if you have time please go to the webpage and vote:
Are you concerned about the impact of genetically engineered trees on
Yes. Altered trees could damage ecosystems by intermingling with
No. The effect should be small, and tailored species might even
protect older forests from harvest.
Total votes: 759
(The caption next to my photo in the article is misleading as I never
told the Christian Science Monitor that those trees in the photo were
GE--Orin Langelle, Global Justice Ecology Project)
Click here to read this story online:
Headline: The impact of test-tube trees on the woods
Byline: Patrik Jonsson Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
(RALEIGH, N.C.)After one of his famous walks, the bearded naturalist John
Muir wrote in 1896, "Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine
But if today's trees could tell their stories, some American branches would
be whispering new tales of origin: epics of genetic engineering in 150
groves from Puget Sound to the palmetto flats of South Carolina.
Scientists are increasingly tweaking the genetics of trees in the
laboratory to enable them to do such things as live at higher
altitudes, produce more fruit, convert more easily into pulp for paper
products, and grow faster for timber harvesting.
Moreover, advocates point to ways the new population could help the old. In
some cases, harvest of the newfangled trees would save older ones from being
cut down. And had the technology been available when the American chestnut
blight broke out in the early 1900s, say some, it might have saved the US
chestnut tree from near extinction.
To critics, however, these newest members of the sylvan society are
Frankentrees - potentially toxic mutants and harbingers of an age when
Muir's "lordly monarchs" might be superseded by megatrees from the lab. And
as China and Brazil experiment with genetically engineered pine cones and
apple blossoms, the debate in America is spreading beyond the laboratory,
the Ivory Tower, and the confines of experimental groves.
"We're looking at a very dramatic impact on the ground here in the US, and
especially the South," says Alyx Perry, director of the Southern Forests
Network in Asheville, N.C. "There are inevitable risks that can irreversibly
alter native systems."
Watchdogs with leaves?
Commercial use of "transgenic" crops began here in the South when the first
genetically engineered tobacco plant was planted in 1986, barely a decade
after American scientists figured out how to cut and paste DNA segments to
create everything from spider silk to glow-in-the-dark guppies.
Now, as the tinkerers take on the forests, the big question is less how
to do it than whether it should be done. The South - America's
fastest-growing pulp producer - is the most likely region for
commercial use of the experimental trees. The US Department of Agriculture
has received more than 100 applications for use of the trees. And even as
some heavy paper users, such as Kinko's, pledge not to use their products,
the technology is taking root:
* The UN has approved use of genetically engineered trees that take in more
carbon than normal trees, and so help to offset industrial emissions.
* Hawaiian officials have approved pest-resistant papaya trees in response
to infestations that nearly wiped out native populations. The new class of
trees has already provided a critical economic boost.
* The Department of Defense has ordered research into arboreal warning
systems - for instance, trees with foliage designed to change color in
reaction to a biochemical attack.
Blowing in the wind
Unlike altered crops such as soybean and wheat, genetically engineered trees
are surrounded by their wild cousins.
One worry is that the seeds of the experimental trees will take root amid
wild populations, changing the aesthetics of the woods. But scientists
caution that doesn't mean a slow incursion of the new breed:
Trees, the ultimate survivalists, will express only those genes that are
necessary for their longevity. "When they escape, the [new genetic material]
may act differently or it may not express at all," says Jim Hemrick, a
tree-genetics expert at the University of Georgia in Athens.
That's small comfort to critics, who say industry representatives seem
more concerned with addressing public-relations issues - key to
approval of the technology for commercial use - than confronting the
ethical side of tampering with the lungs of the world. Many were
outraged when scientists began keeping the locations of their
experimental groves secret, in response to activists' attacks on
genetically engineered plots in Oregon a few years ago.
Conservation and recycling of paper products, these environmentalists say,
are the safest routes to protecting forests.
"Regardless of all the problems with agri-crops, [tree geneticists are]
saying, let's do this with trees, which live for hundreds of years.
What are they thinking?" asks Anne Petermann, codirector of the Global
Justice Ecology Project in Hinesburg, Vt.
Hey - that's not your pollen
Aside from the potential environmental impact, the trees could also have an
impact on commercial uses of the wood.
If some of the softer trees, bred for pulp production, were to show up on
timber lands, for instance, saw mills could cut them unwittingly for use as
lumber, then find out they're too soft to be turned into usable boards.
But perhaps a more essential question is this: Who owns the trees, and who
can claim the products of engineered seeds that drift into the wild? As
companies produce the trees and use their products, they want to make sure
that drifting seeds don't get used by other interests. Already, more than
100 "gene drift" lawsuits have been brought over various farm crops by
companies such as Monsanto, and a similar phenomenon is expected with
"This brings up the issue of intellectual property rights of life forms, and
that gets into a whole other can of worms," says Brad Hash, a board member
at the Native Forest Network in Missoula, Mont. "You could have loggers and
private landowners who would not have ownership to the organisms on their
To opponents of the engineered trees, it's not just the world's forests, but
the marvel and culture surrounding them, that hang in the balance - and many
on both sides are recommending caution.
"It's good to be conservative," says Mr. Hemrick at the University of
Georgia. "It's good to have people reminding us that a worst-case scenario
could happen. But it's fairly unrealistic that we'll get a disaster."
(c) Copyright 2004 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.
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Global Justice Ecology Project
P.O. Box 412
Hinesburg, VT 05461 U.S.
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