World Rainforest Movement

GE trees: Countries Call for Global Moratorium at the COP8 of the CBD

The increasing use of biotechnology in the forestry sector has led to the spread of genetically engineered tree planting in at least thirty-five countries. Though –according to FAO– most research is confined to the laboratories, many millions of GE trees have already been released in open field trials in China, North America, Australia, Europe, and India, and to a lesser extent, South America and Africa.

In the case of China, the State Forestry Bureau is unable to trace the 1.4 million GE poplars (Populus nigra) planted so far, engineered to be infertile and pest resistant. Plans to increase GE tree plantations in China are being considered. Applications to field test GE trees in the US have risen by over 70 percent in fifteen years. A Brazilian government project to sequence the entire genome of the eucalyptus tree is financed by companies that topped a poll representing the worst carbon sink project at the COP9 conference in Milan in 2003. The FAO however, misguidedly describes the “Genolyptus” project in Brazil as “cutting edge biotechnological research.”

Amid the expanding risk of GE trees, alarm bells have been sounding about their impacts. Now it seems that some countries have paid attention to them. On 22 March, at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s Eighth Conference of the Parties held this month in Curitiba, Brazil, delegates from countries around the world raised the call for a moratorium on the release of genetically engineered trees into the environment.

Iran was the first country to bring up the issue of the moratorium acknowledging that GE trees will worsen existing problems with monoculture tree plantations. As long as the CBD is the party that is responsible for this issue, Iran stressed the need that this body should put on a moratorium and launch a global risk assessment regarding GE trees.

The moratorium proposal was supported by nine countries – Ghana, Ecuador, Egypt, Iran, Madagascar, Malawi, Philippines, Rwanda and Senegal. Ghana said that little attention has been paid to the issue of GE trees but concerns are emerging with regard to the impacts of GE trees on forests and human health. “Paragraph 9 from the SBSSTA recommendation [‘new era concerning access to genetic resources’] is very weak. What will the COP do? A stronger message must be made. We are happy with Iran’s suggestion for a moratorium”, stressed a Ghanaian delegate.

The grounds for the ban on the commercial release of transgenic trees into the environment have been also laid down in the “Briefing Paper on Transgenic Trees” issued at CBD COP-8 by Global Justice Ecology Project, EcoNexus, Friends of the Earth International, Global Forest Coalition and World Rainforest Movement: “The pursuit of genetic engineering in forest research is principally corporate, shaped by the imperatives of private investment, market forces and government regulatory institutions. Novel forest tree phenotypes are created as a means to increase shareholder value of investor companies. And although potential benefits will accrue to shareholders, it is clear that ecological risks of certain transgenic traits engineered into trees are likely to be shared by all. Private investment in forest biotechnology is … fueling the creation of novel transgenic phenotypes in trees at a rate that is outstripping public policy deliberation and scientific assessment of environmental concerns specific to trees”, states the document.

“[The GE trees commercial release] will inevitably and irreversibly contaminate native forest ecosystems, which will themselves become contaminants in an endless cycle. The potential effects of commercial release of transgenic trees include destruction of biodiversity and wildlife, loss of fresh water, desertification of soils, collapse of native forest ecosystems, major changes to ecosystem patterns and severe human health impacts. Despite all of these predictably disastrous consequences, thorough risk assessments of transgenic tree release have not been done. Rural and indigenous communities in and around countries advancing commercial transgenic tree plantations will bear the greatest burden of the negative impacts of transgenic trees”.

“Potential human health impacts are only beginning to be known. Health risks include increased exposure to hazardous chemicals applied to plantations of transgenic trees and harmful effects of inhaling pollen from trees that produce the bacterial toxin Bt. Engineering trees to produce Bt toxin could be far more dangerous. Pines are known for heavy pollination, spreading pollen for hundreds of kilometers. Establishment of plantations of pines that produce Bt pollen could potentially lead to widespread outbreaks of sickness”.

“Given that genetic modification in trees is already entering the commercial phase with GM populus in China, it is very important that environmental risk assessment studies are conducted with protocols and methodologies agreed upon at a national level and an international level. It is also important that the results of such studies are made widely available.”

The report concludes: “The damaging effects of conventional industrial monoculture tree plantations is already well-documented and is being resisted around the world. The addition of transgenic tree plantations can only worsen existing problems. Add to this the utter lack of credible risk assessment of transgenic tree release, especially on a global scale, and it becomes a matter of common sense that there must not be any further forward motion in the commercial development of transgenic tree plantations. The UN CBD must impose a moratorium on the technology and launch a thorough and global examination of the risks of transgenic tree release.”

Article based on information from: “Briefing Paper on Transgenic Trees – Agenda Pt. 26.1 – CBD COP-8, Curitiba, Brazil”,; personal communication from Orin Langelle, Global Justice Ecology Project and STOP GE Trees Campaign, and members of the Global Forest Coalition; “UN Cautions Over GM trees”, Sam Burcher, ISIS Press Release 12/10/05,

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