World Rainforest Movement

Playing God with trees for money making

On July 20, 1999, Biogenetic S.A., a joint venture between Fundacion Chile (Santiago, Chile) and InterLink biotechnologies, (Princeton, NJ) announced the creation of a new venture for the development of “improved” forestry species: GenFor S.A.

The idea follows what biotech firms are already doing with corn, potatoes and soybeans. Using Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a naturally occurring soil bacterium that kills pests if inserted into growing plants, researchers at Genfor in Chile say they are near to producing a commercially viable genetically engineered tree.

The reasons for doing this are several, but all linked to a socially and environmentally unsustainable forestry model based on fast-growth, large-scale tree monocultures. Eighty percent of Chile’s tree plantations are composed of one single –and alien– pine species: Pinus radiata. These plantations have been infested by the European shoot-tip moth (Rhyacionia buoliana), and being monocultures they have become a huge food supply for this tiny insect. The moth larvae burrow into the main stem and secondary branches of Radiata pine and cause the death of the tips of both stem and branches, leaving timber companies with a stunted bush instead of a healthy tree. The shoot-tip moth ruins about 30% of the harvest when it goes untreated, and 10% even with treatment, according to Chile’s National Forestry Corp. Chile’s forestry companies currently spend US$3 million annually to control the moths through the release of wasps that prey on the larvae.

Genfor says it has successfully implanted seedlings with the Bt protein, which kills moth larvae before they can do damage. The company predicts that its insect-resistant pine will be ready for the market in 2008.

But resistance to insects is not the only aim of Genfor. Even more significant is Genfor’s joint efforts with Canadian biotech company Cellfor to raise the level of cellulose and modify lignin in Radiata and Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), key traits to Chile’s enormous cellulose pulp production. Lignin is an element that must be removed to make cellulose and its removal is the most expensive stage of pulp production. The industry would thereby very much welcome a raw material with a larger cellulose content.

The joint research in Cellfor’s Canadian lab achieved a 20% cellulose increase in poplar and is now transferring that experience to the pine species. By 2003, concrete results are expected. Because Loblolly is planted extensively in Argentina and Brazil (as well as the southern United States), the project will be Genfor’s entry into its larger target market of South America.

In sum, it’s all about money and power for the already wealthy and powerful. If these GE trees are allowed to be used, the current social and environmental impacts caused by tree monocultures –in Chile and elsewhere– will only be exacerbated. Unless something is done to prevent their release in the environment, their yet unknown impacts will be borne by future generations of people, animals and plants. If corporations are allowed to play God, then God save humanity!

Article based on information from: “Here Come the Super Trees”, LatinTrade, April 29, 2002, http://www.latintrade.com/newsite/content/archives.cfm?StoryID=1669 ; Global Alliance Against GE Trees. The Players: GenFor, http://www.gaaget.org/players/genfor.html