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Genetically engineered trees: when scientists become publicists

Genetically engineered trees: when scientists become publicists

By Ricardo Carrere

Strong campaigns by an increasing number of NGOs and indigenous peoples' organizations have raised the dangers that genetically modified trees pose to the biological diversity of forests. A recently published article by four pro-GM tree scientists shows how unscientific some can be to defend their case.


The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is mandated to protect the world's biodiversity. Strong campaigns by an increasing number of NGOs and indigenous peoples' organizations have raised the dangers that genetically modified trees pose to the biological diversity of forests. The Convention addressed this problem and, after discussing it, decided that it was necessary to take precautionary measures before authorizing the introduction of such trees into the environment.

The CBD's position was welcomed by organizations that care about the fate of the world's forests and their people, but it is being strongly resisted by those who would gain from the business of transgenic trees.

A recently published article by four pro-GM tree scientists shows how unscientific some can be to defend their case. The authors are Stephen Strauss, Huimin Tan, Wout Boerjan and Roger Sedjo and the title in English is “Strangled at birth? Forest biotech and the Convention on Biological Diversity Nature Biotechnology ”. (1)

This is a fairly long and detailed article, which shows the importance that the GM tree lobby attaches to the CBD's position in this regard. On the other hand, it also shows how far its authors are willing to go to defend their position. The following are just a few examples that illustrate this point, but we invite those interested in the subject to analyze the full text, which they will find at http://www.globaljusticeecology.org/stopgetrees_news.php?ID=294.

The title tries to make believe that GM trees have been "strangled at birth" by the CBD. However, the authors forget to say that at least 20 countries conduct research on this topic and that there are already field trials in 11 or more countries (for more information, see http://www.wrm.org.uy/subjects/GMTrees /Information_sheets.html). What the CBD is doing is simply applying the precautionary principle to avoid the possibility that transgenic trees have irreversible impacts on biodiversity. In other words, the CBD is limiting itself to fulfilling its mission.

Actually, what the article says reinforces the CBD's position. Strauss and the others give him the necessary arguments.

They say that "The most credible science-based concerns regarding transgenic trees are perhaps related to their potential for high seed and pollen dispersal when allowed to flower." And they add that “Most scientists agree that, until genes are developed that prevent transgenic contamination, that are socially acceptable and of proven efficacy in the field, there will surely be some degree of gene dispersal - either through pollen, seeds or vegetative propagules - in most forest species.


Furthermore, dispersal can cover great distances, on the order of several kilometers or more ”(emphasis added). To make matters even worse, they add that "The low level of domestication of most tree species contributes to this problem, since propagules are usually fit enough to survive in wild environments"

This would be enough for most scientists to discourage such dangerous activity, but not for Strauss and his colleagues.

Among the many arguments they use to justify their research and outdoor essays, the following is a good example of their anti-scientific approach. They say that “very few of the transgenic species that are being developed for commercial purposes are sexually compatible with wild forests, or will be used in or near wild forests, so it will be very exceptional if there is a significant degree of introgression of transgenes in wild tree genomes, to the point that they become common in wild ecosystems ”(emphasis added).

While these four emphasize that they are scientific - and they do it from end to end of the article - to prove that they are right in everything they say, the aforementioned paragraph proves exactly the opposite: a totally unscientific attitude.

1) The difference between hypotheses and facts vanishes and the former are shown as synonyms for the latter. Tests:

- Science cannot know if transgenic species "will be used in or near wild forests", because governments and companies will decide.

- Science cannot know if "it will be very exceptional if there is a significant degree of introgression of transgenes in the genomes of wild trees".

- The meaning of "very exceptional" or "a significant degree" is not quantified.

2) There is a confusion between species and forests.

- Transgenic species can be sexually compatible or incompatible with natural species, but not with “wild forests”.

- The use of the indefinite term “wild forests” may mean that they are referring only to the contamination of species that live in “primary” forests, and not to the species themselves.

3) Existing evidence is hidden

- The most commonly genetically manipulated genus is poplar (various species). However, the article does not mention that there is already evidence of GM contamination of "wild" (native) poplars in China.

- The article does not mention that the other two main trees that are subject to genetic manipulation are pine (which grows in many “wild” forests around the world) and eucalyptus (native to Australia and planted in many, many countries around the world). In both cases, pollen and seed dispersal would be unavoidable and no scientist can prove that Australia's eucalyptus forests would be safe from GM contamination.

- The authors say that “the area planted with transgenic forest species is likely to be relatively small; forest plantations comprise only about 5% of the world's forest cover ”. They forget to mention that, according to the FAO, the plantations cover a total of… 270 million hectares! Describing this area as "relatively small" is unscientific, to say the least.

Examples of this type abound in the article, although the following is perhaps one of the most illustrative: “… wild tree species could take advantage of some types of transgenic trees, for example, a wild tree could acquire a trait that improves its resistance to stress and, thus, to become resistant to new forms of biotic or abiotic stress, perhaps caused by rapid climate change ”.

Obviously, this amounts to recognizing that, if the planting of transgenic trees is authorized, there will be contamination. But at the same time, it is difficult to understand - unless the authors have a Ph.D. in futurology - how science can determine whether or not "wild" trees will benefit from the acquisition of new traits, or whether species with "Better resistance" will not endanger biological diversity, precisely because of this new trait.

Summing up, the article ends up demonstrating that the NGO arguments for calling for a ban on GM trees are scientifically correct, and helps justify the precautionary approach called for by the CBD.

Ricardo Carrere is Editor of the Monthly Newsletter of the WRM - World Movement for Tropical Forests http://www.wrm.org.uy

(1) Strangled at birth? Forest biotech and the Convention on Biological Diversity Nature Biotechnology 27, 519-527 (2009). Steven H. Strauss, Huimin Tan, Wout Boerjan & Roger Sedjo


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