World Rainforest Movement

India: Will new National Forest Policy open the door to GM trees?

The study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) “Preliminary Review of Biotechnology in Forestry Including Genetic Modification” (, released in December 2004, summarized the state of biotechnology in forestry generally with a specific look at genetic modification of trees. In their findings they report 225 outdoor field trials of GM trees worldwide in 16 countries. Unfortunately they do not differentiate which field trials are current and which occurred in the past, painting a somewhat skewed picture. Of the 225 field trials, they list 150 in the United States. The remainders are listed mostly in Europe: France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Finland and Sweden, as well as in Canada and Australia. Field tests in the South are listed in India, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile and Brazil. China is the only country known to have developed commercial plantations of GM trees, with well over one million trees planted throughout ten provinces.

India was referred in the study to have carried out one field trial of GM forest tree. Presently, a new National Forest Policy is being debated behind closed doors which, according to a report from the Indian Financial Express, “is expected to give a thrust to genetically modified (GM) trees for boosting the paper industry as well as improving the quality of by-products of wood.”

Genetically modified trees have the potential to radically and permanently change the world’s forests. As with GM crops, a major issue is gene escape, but the effects are more far-reaching due to the central role played by trees in the ecosystem.

After some inquiries, Ecologist Asia staff were unable to discover details of the proposed National Forest Policy. The Indian subsidiary of Monsanto says it is not working with GM trees in India at this time. In response to a query by email, Monsanto India representative Susan Joseph said from their Mumbai office that “Monsanto’s India business consists of developing high-quality herbicides, hybrid seeds (corn and sunflower) and biotech traits (Bt cotton).” However, when asked about Monsanto’s likely course of action if the new Indian Forest Policy promotes GM trees, she did not respond.

Anne Peterman of the US-based based Global Justice Ecology Project, which is coordinating an international campaign against GM trees, said in response to this, that “Trees are being engineered to resist Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup. If Roundup-Ready trees are proposed for India, this is a connection to Monsanto, even though they may not be directly involved in the R&D. They will definitely profit from these trees through the increased sales of their toxic Roundup herbicide.” If, as suggested by the Indian Financial Express, the purpose of GM trees deployment in India is to boost the paper industry, then it is likely that one trait that will be genetically modified is the amount of lignin in the trees. Reducing the amount of lignin, which provides rigidity and strength to plant cell walls, is potentially a money-saver for the pulp and paper industry, which has to remove less lignin during processing of wood fibre.

However, as pointed out by Prof. Joe Cummins of the UK-based Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) in a paper on lignin reduction, “the advantages of reduced lignin are offset by the disadvantage of plants with reduced lignin, which are more readily attacked by predators such as insects, fungi and bacteria.”

Weak lignin-reduced GM trees are likely to require additional genetically engineered traits, such as Bt insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. It is then only a matter of time before the traits escape into the wild ecosystem, as has already happened with GM crops of various kinds.

International agencies such as the FAO also are playing a key role in the issue of GM trees. In response to a question by email, Pierre Sigaud of FAO said that “FAO takes no stand for or against GM trees.” In a statement on biotechnology on its website, FAO says that it supports “a cautious case-by-case approach to address legitimate concerns for the biosafety of each product or process prior to its release.” However, with the FAO’s involvement in China’s GM trees programme, it seems clear that this represents a de facto stance in favour of industrial plantations of GM trees. There was no reply to an email asking for further clarification of the FAO’s position.

Species that could be commercialised in India include GM eucalyptus, which has been called the “selfish tree” because of the large amount of water it uses, with an accompanying effect on India’s vulnerable water tables. Glyphosate spraying, for example with Monsanto’s Roundup, would also lead to inevitable contamination of drinking water and health problems for local people, such as cancer and miscarriages. Denmark has already banned glyphosate for this reason.

India’s new National Forest Policy is being shaped against this background, possibly with pressure from companies that stand to profit from GM trees. As India’s already-stressed forests struggle into the 21st century, with the human communities, native ecosystems, and especially water supplies that are dependent upon them, it is time to ask for transparency in this process.

Article based on information from: “The International Status of Genetically Modified Trees”, 2005, Anne Petermann, Global Justice Ecology Project,; “Preliminary Review of Biotechnology in Forestry Including Genetic Modification”, FAO, December 2004,; “GM trees bloom in rush to feed growing paper industry”, BV Mahlakshmi, 2005, ; “Frankentrees Threaten India’s Forests”, Philip Carter, email:,