World Rainforest Movement

Call for global moratorium on genetically engineered trees

Multinational corporations, with support from some academic institutions and governments, are working hard to create and grow genetically engineered trees. Such development is causing great concern among informed sectors of the public, who reasonably fear that these artificially created organisms pose a threat to the environment, and could cause irreparable imbalances in the world’s forest ecosystems. Critical reports, protests and even direct actions have been undertaken to curb this process (see WRM Bulletins 23 and 26).

A report recently launched in the UK by WWF reveals that a rapidly increasing number of genetically modified (GM) trees are being planted without proper controls around the world. The WWF report -called “GM Technology in the Forest Sector”- warns that commercial GM tree production could begin within the next two years, probably in Chile, China, and Indonesia, funded principally by private capital from Northern nations. This might happen despite inadequate regulations and inadequate research into the environmental impact of GM trees.

The study analyses the environmental and social impacts of GM trees, and concludes that the risk of genetic pollution is high. Other threats to the environment include possible new super-weeds. There could also be unintended impacts on non-target species when GM trees are engineered for pest resistance and herbicide tolerance. In sum, the same questions on the same critical points that genetic engineering applied to food crops has not been able to answer.

Field trials of GM tree species have expanded in different regions of the world. Countries with confirmed trials in course are: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, UK, USA and Uruguay. In 1998, there were 44 new trials and, in the last three years, the number of trial tree species doubled. Since that year there have been 116 confirmed GM tree trials in 17 countries, using 24 tree species, 75% percent out of which being timber-producing species. The situation is especially dangerous in Southern countries, where there is often little or no regulation regarding the setting up of such trials. They are often driven by the private sector, and notably by those multinationals that wish to invest in genetically modified organisms (GMO) but are restricted by regulations in Northern countries.

As a result of the research, Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud, Head of WWF’s Forests for Life Programme, stated that “WWF is calling on governments worldwide to declare a global moratorium on the commercial release of GM trees until enough research has been conducted and proper safeguards have been put in place.” Apart from such a moratorium, WWF calls for strengthened regulations for field tests, which examine the long term environmental impacts of GM tree species, and a severe and robust Biosafety Protocol within the Convention on Biodiversity, which is the most important international agreement on GMOs. WWF also demands the start of a comprehensive programme of research on which credible decisions can be based, and the launch of an open public debate on the future of GM technology.

Those interested in receiving further information on this initiative, please contact: Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud, Head of Forests for Life Programme, WWF International