World Rainforest Movement

Super Trees: the biotech nightmare is already here

Fletcher Challenge Forests, International Paper, Monsanto Company and Westvaco Corporation announced on April 6th their intent to form a forestry biotechnology joint venture to produce and market tree seedlings that will allegedly improve trees’ health and productivity for the forestry market worldwide. The four companies will spend U$S 60 million for the joint venture over five years. The companies also announced their intent to contract with Genesis Research and Development Corporation Limited -a New Zealand biotechnology research company- to provide genomics research. The joint venture also will acquire forestry intellectual property rights from Genesis.

The participating companies envision further development in forestry biotechnology worldwide and believe that, as international demand for wood fiber increases, significant business opportunities will result from super tree development. Of course they will focus on those fast-growing species currently being used by the forestry industry -eucalyptus and poplar species, radiata pine, loblolly pine and sweetgum. Targeted genetic “improvements” include: herbicide tolerant planting stock to enable more cost-effective control of competing vegetation (and higher profits for Monsanto, one of the partners of this joint venture); higher growth rates to allow more wood to be grown in less time (and higher profits for the plantation partners); improved fiber quality and uniformity to increase efficiency in paper and wood products manufacturing processes (and higher profits for the transnational pulp and paper industry).

The participating companies claim that biotechnology -by “strengthening their ability to manage forestlands in a sustainable and eco-efficient manner for the benefit of future generations”- will enable forestry companies to meet the growing demand for paper and wood products “without increasing pressure on native forests.”

It would be very useful to know what they mean by “sustainable and eco-efficient”. Is the use of herbicides, fertilizers, the depletion of water resources, the disappearance of local wildlife and flora considered to be sustainable and eco-efficient? Is encroachment on local peoples lands and the substitution of their forests by monoculture tree plantations also considered as part of the sustainable/eco-efficient package?

Part of the academic sector is also involved in this development. The University of Oxford has announced that it will host the joint meeting of the International Wood Biotechnology Symposium and the IUFRO Molecular Biology of Forest Trees Working Group. The event, entitled “Forest Biotechnology 99”, will run July 11-16, 1999. Sessions will focus on topics as genetic engineering of specific traits, advances in molecular breeding, and deployment of transgenic material. In the UK the first test site of genetically engineered poplar trees has already been set up by biotechnology company Zeneca, with funding of the EU.

The language of sustainable development -while not its substance- has definitively been adopted by transnational companies as part of their “greening” process. Some important academic and funding institutions support them. When both biotechnology in industrial agriculture and the expansion of large scale tree plantations are being severely questioned by local communities, indigenous peoples, NGOs and some academic sectors due to their proved negative effects, it is astonishing that this kind of initiatives are promoted and even more so when publicised as being “eco-efficient.” This new onslaught can only be explained by their greed for obtaining gains regardless of the negative impacts of the activities to be undertaken. Now that genetic engineering is going into high gear, perhaps pretty soon they’ll be saying that properly-engineered trees can solve not only all the environmental but also the social problems associated with large scale tree plantations.

The push to create “designed trees” has caused alarm among informed sectors of the public, who are not only witnessing an accelerated expansion of tree monocultures but also fear that genetically modified trees could cause irreparable imbalances in the world’s forest ecosystems. It is also feared that new genetically modified traits – such as herbicide resistance – will be spread to natural trees, creating hybrids. It is undoubtly a nightmarish vision of the future. And it is already here.

Sources: Larry Lohmann, 19/5/99; Red por una América Latina Libre de Transgénicos, 28/5/99