World Rainforest Movement

China: The vicious circle of tree plantations, GM trees, pulp-mills and wasteful paper consumption

China’s growing pulp and paper market is being the world’s fastest. Although per capita paper consumption is less than ten per cent of the amount consumed in the US, China accounts for 14 per cent of global paper consumption. Jaakko Pöyry has estimated that paper consumption in China would increase at 4.4 per cent a year between 2000 and 2015. Much of that “consumption” is used in packaging of goods for export, which means that real per capita paper consumption in China is actually much lower.

Such growth has its toll: under the advice and the money of the World Bank, a large-scale pulp and paper polluting industry that consumes vast amounts of water, employs few people and relies on vast areas of monoculture plantations to supply its raw materials has developed. The modern industry is replacing the old pulp and paper industry which -though polluting- had a number of positive aspects: it operated on a small-scale, used non-wood raw material like residues from rice and wheat crops, employed large numbers of people and supported millions of farmers for whom the sale of wheat straw to local paper mills was an important source of income. (See WRM Bulletin Nº 83).

Bad news for the weak, good profits for consulting firms, machinery suppliers and paper companies that make up the global pulp and paper industry: Finnish-Swedish paper giant Stora Enso announced that it would increase the capacity of its Suzhou mill from 160,000 to 240,000 tons a year; Stora Enso has eucalyptus plantations in Guangxi province in south China; Finland’s UPM Kymmene’s Changshu mill started operations in 1999 and today produces 800,000 tons of paper a year, with pulp imported from Indonesia; Indonesia’s Asia Pulp and Paper has plans to build a 600,000 tons pulp and paper mill in Qinzhou, Guangxi province, fed on the company’s eucalyptus plantations in south China; APP aims to establish 600,000 hectares of plantations in China; Japan’s largest paper company, Oji Paper, plans to establish a total of 200,000 hectares of fast-growing tree plantations in China.

The increase in pulp and paper capacity leads to more industrial scale tree plantations that result in a large number of documented environmental and social impacts. Their aim is consumption and for the industry to be profitable, artificial consumption needs are created for “vital” paper stuff such as bags, brochures, business cards, catalogues, cellulose sponges, cigarette inner liner, cigarette wrappers, clothing tags, cosmetic and luxury packaging, facial tissue, fast food bags, giftwrap, hand towels, kitchen towels, lottery tickets, menus, pet-food bags … (as can be seen in a long list of end-use products of the pulp and paper Sappi company at Corporate info,

The Chinese government aims at occupying between 2001 and 2015 some 6 million hectares with industrial tree plantations,
apparently to reverse decades of deforestation that have left China facing serious environmental problems, including droughts and deadly floods. However, the so called “reforestation plan” implies indeed monoculture tree planting including plantations of GM trees. Chris Lang quoted Wang Lida, Han Yifan and Hu Jianjun of the Chinese Academy of Forestry (see WRM Bulletin Nº 35) writing: “The first step is to raise plantations using fast-growing species such as poplar and larch”. Though initially poplar trees might be aimed at soil erosion protection they eventually may well serve as a raw material for the pulp and paper industry.

China has received the help from Western funds either to plant trees and do research on GM tress. Since 1980, the World Bank has lent China more than US$600 million to establish tree plantations. According to a 2006 FAO Executive summary by Nicholas Wheeler, “Worldwide, more than 210 field trials of genetically modified (GM) trees exist in 16 countries” but “only China has reported the commercial release of GM trees (ca 1.4 million plants on 300–500 ha in 2002).”(1)

In the late 1990s, the first field trials for GM trees were carried out on the headwaters of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers and Xinjiang province in the arid north-west. In 2002, China’s State Forestry Administration authorised the first Bt poplars for commercial cultivation.

Two GM poplar clones –Populus nigra and Populus hybrid– have been developed and named Poplar-12 and Poplar-741. According to
officials from the Chinese Academy of Forestry, “both commercialized species are female poplars with altered fertility”. Genetic transformations were aimed at giving resistance to leaf-eating insects (Bt) and modified wood properties.

According to an article of Katie Shafley, “Trees with increased levels of BT result in the ‘natural’ selection of insects that are more resistant to the BT pesticide. This, in turn, necessitates higher pesticide levels, which can inadvertently kill non-target species.”(2) With GM trees the risk of contamination is a real major threat, warn chief scientists from the Chinese Academy of Forestry: Huoran Wang clearly stated in a 2004 report for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation that “(P)oplar trees are so widely planted in northern China that pollen and seed dispersal can not be prevented”, and that maintaining “isolation distances” between GM and non-GM poplars is “almost impossible.”(3) The Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science has already found genes from the GE poplars in Xinjiang appearing in natural varieties.(4)

There has been quite a lot of interest in Western countries to help China develop GM trees: the United Nations Development Project handed out 1.8 million US dollars for a FAO-run project on GM poplar trees which provided capacity building, technology transfer and laboratory support; the German Federal Research Centre for Forestry and Forest Products at Waldsieversdorf has maintained close contact with Chinese forestry scientists working on GM trees, even hosting Chinese scientist Hu Jianjun. The Chinese Academy of Forestry and the Hebei University at Baoding are playing a crucial role in the development of the Bt poplars and have carried out the research.(5)

Regulation of genetically modified organisms in China is covered by the Biosafety Act for GMOs in Agriculture, adopted by the State Council in May 2001. However, no regulations specifically cover GM trees and the decision on whether to approve the GM trees for release relies on an expert panel organised by the State Forestry Administration. According to declarations of Xue Dayuan of the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science, the GMO Safety Administration Office of China’s Ministry of Agriculture has no control over GM trees because they are not classified as crops. But the State Forestry Bureau, which oversees tree plantations, does not have a licensing system like the one run by the ministry.(6)

“The accurate area of GM plantations cannot be assessed because of the ease of propagation and marketing of GM trees and the
difficulty of morphologically distinguishing GM from non-GM trees,” wrote Huoran Wang in the FAO report. “A lot of materials are moved from one nursery to another and it is difficult to trace them.”

Growing wasteful paper consumption results in the huge expansion of industrial pulpwood plantations. The rapid growth of the
plantation trees is achieved at the expense of soil, water, biodiversity and local communities’ livelihoods. The need to increase profitability makes higher productivity necessary, which itself leads to the release of dangerous GM trees for feeding ever bigger pulp mills. A vicious circle which can only end in destruction.

(1) Executive summary, Nicholas Wheeler, FAO document,
(2) “The New Chainsaw. Genetically engineered trees are the new threat to Canada’s forests”, by Katie Shafley, http://www.
(3) “The state of genetically modified forest trees in China”, Huoran Wang – Chinese Academy of Forestry, Beijing, FAO report,
(4) “China’s GM trees get lost in bureaucracy”, Fred Pearce, New Scientist,
(5) “Cultivation of Bt poplars in China”, GMO Safety,
(6) Op cit 4 index