World Rainforest Movement

Biotechnology: The dangerous paradigm of modern industrial forestry

The word “modern” is usually understood as meaning progress. In forestry, it clearly means the opposite, particularly –though by no means only– with respect to biodiversity. Modern industrial forestry aims at the production of ever increasing volumes of wood per hectare, regardless of its impacts on people, soils, water and biological diversity.

The initial stages of industrial forestry are now perceived as primitive by modern foresters, because only few hectares of trees of a single genus (frequently several species of eucalyptus in the same plot) were planted in holes dug in the soil. They grew fast, though not fast enough to feed the ever-growing appetite of the pulp and timber industry.

Consequently, scientists and technocrats came to the rescue and provided the industry with further ideas. Ploughing and fertilising, herbicide and pesticide spraying were applied to increase wood yields which were still not high enough to satisfy industry. So-called “plus” trees (fast-growing, straight trunks, few and thin branches), were selected for seed production to produce new generations of even faster growing and more adequate trees to feed sawmills and pulpmills with homogeneous raw material. The following steps were the incorporation of hybridisation and cloning, which increased wood production, now tailored more closely to the needs of industry (e.g. low lignin content to meet the pulp industry’s economic interest of high cellulose content).

The above “innovations” –which were in fact only following on the steps of the Green Revolution in agriculture– led to the establishment of millions of hectares of very fast-growing plantations, which produce wood-yields unimaginable two decades ago. Establishment foresters portray such “progress” as a success story. It has resulted however, in serious social and environmental impacts. The fact that local people –who have to endure their consequences– describe them as “dead forests”, “green cancer”, “green desert”, “planted soldiers” (green, in rows and advancing ominously), “selfish trees”, etc. indicate the extent of those impacts.

In spite of the above, for the anti-social and anti-environmental mindframe behind this forestry model, genetic manipulation is the ultimate paradigm: imagine thousands, millions, billions of trees, all with the same chosen genotype, growing in straight lines at amazing rates and producing millions of tonnes of wood! But for people and the environment, biotechnology would be the ultimate disaster multiplying the present impact of tree plantations, which already make them socially and environmentally unsustainable, many times.

From a biodiversity perspective, genetically modified tree plantations pose serious threats and “nowhere are the contradictions of the GM ‘fix’ clearer than in the controversy over how to prevent genetic modifications from spreading from industrial to neighbouring ecosystems.”

The authors of the above quote (Sampson and Lohmann) stress that “the need to prevent GM trees and their genes from invading native ecosystems is clear. Low-lignin trees have the potential to disrupt the forest composting cycle responsible for unique soil structures and nutrient cycling systems. An influx of low-lignin trees vulnerable to damage from insects and other herbivores, moreover, could result in pest population explosions. Insect-resistant GM trees have the potential to disrupt insect population dynamics and also are likely to enjoy an invasive advantage over forest tree species. More generally, invasions of GM trees could threaten the diversity of the forest gene pool from which trees are selected for conventional breeding –a reservoir already reduced by selective logging practices. Because trees are even more genetically compatible with their wild relatives than highly-bred agricultural crops, GM “escapes” are especially worrisome in forestry.” (the full version of this study is available at http://www.wrm.org.uy/subjects/trees.html )

The authors’ concluding remarks underscore the specific concerns that forestry biotechnology raise: “In these respects, the issues raised by GM trees are similar to those raised by GM crops. Yet in many ways, genetic modification in forestry is an even more serious issue than genetic engineering in agriculture. Trees’ long lives and largely undomesticated status, their poorly understood biology and lifecycles, the complexity and fragility of forest ecosystems, and corporate and state control over enormous areas of forest land on which GM trees could be planted combine to create risks which are unique. The biosafety and social implications of the application of genetic engineering to forestry are grave enough to warrant an immediate halt to releases of GM trees.”

Article based on information from: Sampson, Viola and Lohmann, Larry, “Genetic Dialectic: The Biological Politics of Genetically Modified Trees”. The Cornerhouse, Briefings 21, 2000