I had no idea that GMO trees existed until about a month ago, and my first reaction was – what's the big deal? I forgot about the fruit from trees, so I didn't immediately understand the dangers they pose. GMO trees are currently being grown for fruit, pulp and paper in 100 to 150 test plots around the US today, especially in the south. They are also grown in other hot countries around the world. This article is based on the short documentary narrated by Dr. David Suzuki called “A Silent Forest”.
Unlike carefully breeding animals or plants of the same species to bring out specific desirable traits through many generations (vertical inheritance), genetic modification involves inserting the DNA of one species into another completely unrelated species to create something that could never happen through cross-pollination or hybridization (horizontal inheritance).
The biotechnologists have no real control over where the genes of one species are going to land within the genome of the other species, and they have absolutely no idea of what the expression of that gene will be in the context of its new, unrelated genome. And they also have no idea what the unintended consequences might be of the new creation on the environment, and on the insects, plants and animals that might interact with it.
The trees are being modified in a number of different ways. One modification is to insert the genes of a bacteria called bacillus thuringiensus (Bt) into the DNA of the tree in order to make it pest resistant. Bt toxin is expressed in every cell within the tree, including the root, trunk, leaf and flower from the time it sprouts and throughout the plant’s entire life. The idea is that by making the tree toxic to insects, one would not need to use chemical insecticides.
However, the insects that are not killed by the Bt toxin breed with each other so with each insect generation they are becoming more resistant to the toxin. Therefore, stronger or more powerful chemicals are required in order to control these “super insects” than had the trees not been genetically modified in the first place. The other unintended consequence is that non-targeted insects are also killed off, like ladybugs and monarch butterflies, which have dropped 75 percent since the introduction of Bt corn.
Trees live for a very long time, and will be putting out this toxin and killing insects their entire life cycle. Will Bt toxin concentrate in the tissues of animals that eat the insects and the animals that eat those animals in the same way DDT did? We don’t know. Insects are vital for pollination of plants, for predation and as food for other species, so eliminating insects will have a devastating effect on life that relies on them. We are already concerned about the diminishing bee population so is it really a good idea to eliminate other insects that pollinate plants? What animal species will die out once the insects are gone? What other animals higher up the food chain will be threatened or become extinct?
Apparently it is already known that Bt toxin leaches into the soil altering the microbial community, and contaminating soil as well as ground and surface water far away from where the Bt trees and corn were originally grown. How many community water supplies near fields of GMO corn have been contaminated with Bt toxin?
There is more and more evidence that Bt crops like corn can cause allergies and respiratory problems in humans. Tree pollen can travel for hundreds of miles, so the health impacts for humans of Bt trees might be significant. Cornell University is growing GMO apple trees, and there is a real risk of allergic reaction in those that unknowingly eat them, as GMO foods are still unlabelled.
Hawaii is dealing with the problem of spot fungus on the GMO papayas they are growing, and farmers have found that instead of saving themselves money by planting the GMO variety, they are spending much more in toxic fungicides which they need to spray on their crops every 10 days. Needless to say, spraying so frequently must be taking its toll on the health of the farmers as well.
There is evidence of cancer in animals fed GMO food, and when one considers that GMO corn has the bt toxin in each cell of the plant, one must wonder what the cumulative effect of our consuming that toxin might be. This is why I have repeatedly suggested that if we are going to eat corn or corn-containing products, probably better to choose organic to avoid the unlabelled GMO varieties.
Another genetic modification that is being used in trees is to make them resistant to Round Up, the herbicide containing glyphosate that is manufactured by Monsanto. This means that any plant that contains this gene won’t be killed by the herbicide. This modification is also widely used in canola crops all over North America. Since the crop won’t be affected, it is known that farmers that plant Round-Up Ready crops spray their crops with three times the amount of herbicide than those that use the GM variety.
Glyphosate is extremely harmful to the soil, earthworms, birds and animals that come in contact with it, and it runs into waterways impacting larger animals that drink from them. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, commercial agricultural chemicals that are sprayed onto crops and run off into streams and rivers are the largest polluters of waterways.
Farmers that are regularly exposed to glyphosate have higher incidence of miscarriage, pre-mature births, and non-hodgkins lymphoma. Regularly spraying forests with glyphosate would be devastating to the forest ecosystem, killing off all underbrush and endangering the animals that use that underbrush as habitat.
Another problem is that the pollen from trees can travel for hundreds of miles, contaminating native forests with the various GMO variants. Many organic papaya farmers in Hawaii have lost their certification due to contamination from the GMO papaya crops due to wind-carried pollen. It would not take long for single US GMO-tree plantation to contaminate all the forests in North America.
So, biotechnology’s solution is to implant a sterility gene into the tree genome so that it can’t reproduce. They have been talking about using the sterility gene in food crops too. If there is any problem with this terminator technology, there is the possibility of the sterility gene being spread to native species potentially killing forests. Even Monsanto says they can’t guarantee 100 percent sterility or that the technology will work all the time.
So, a tree plantation with these GMO traits would have no insects, would have no undergrowth and would be filled with toxic herbicide chemicals. 95 percent of the trees would be sterile, so would have no pollen, seeds, fruit or other food for animals or birds to eat, so none would be living there. The 5 percent of trees that are not sterile would be contaminating the neighbouring native forests with the implanted genes, creating larger areas without life.
Because most of the trees would be sterile, their energy would be directed to growth rather than reproduction, resulting in overuse of ground water, drying out the land creating desert. This would impact the viability of other crops as well as reduce the water available for livestock, potentially increasing hunger in indigenous populations. Self-sustaining communities would be forced to leave the land due to the drying up of soil caused by neighbouring GMO tree plantations.
And of course there is the legal issue. So far, the courts have ruled that life can be owned and treated as a commodity. According to legal precedents, the contaminated trees would become the property of Monsanto no matter whose land they are on. Farmers have been charged and prosecuted by Monsanto for GMO plants found on their property even though the seeds got there via the wind, birds or flooding.
Furthermore, even if only a small percentage of a crop is contaminated, the courts have ruled that the entire crop then belongs to the biotech company. So farmers can lose their rights to their property overnight through no fault of their own should Monsanto decide to enforce its patent rights. In the case of trees, Monsanto would gain control of private as well as government land. So what might that mean for national parks? Is this what we want?
In summary, GMO trees are a threat to all animal and plant life in the forests of the world, including the forests themselves as they use up the available water. Glyphosate and Bt toxin threaten insect, plant, animal and human health and we will be unable to stop these toxins from contaminating other plants, soils and the ground water. Hopefully it is not already too late to put the genie back in the bottle, but if we value life on this planet we need to try.
As consumers, we can use our purchasing power to choose wood and paper products that are not made from GMO trees. Kinko’s Copies use non-GMO paper, so support them, and tell the big companies like Home Depot to switch to non-GMO sources of wood and paper products if they want your business. Ultimately, if there is no market for the GMO products, the biotech companies will be forced to stop producing the GMO seeds. Please watch the 45 minute documentary entitled “The Silent Forest” for a more complete understanding of this issue.
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Copyright 2010 Vreni Gurd