Global Policy Forum

Genetically Engineered Trees Hotly Debated at the UN Biodiversity Convention in Bonn


By Anne Petermann

eGov Monitor
May 27, 2008

The world's governments have gathered in Bonn, Germany ostensibly to debate and negotiate action to protect the world's remaining biological diversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the leading United Nations agreement for ecological governance, covering many areas of environmental, economic and social policy, involving thousands of participants and producing large amounts of policies, guidelines and international law. While less known than the UN Climate Convention, the CBD is also an outcome of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, signed and ratified by 192 countries. The 9th Conference of Parties (COP), the main decision-making body for the CBD, is convened from the 12th - 30th of May 2008.

One of the hottest issues on the agenda of this year's COP is the topic of genetically engineered trees. When GE trees were first introduced to the COP in Curitiba, Brazil in 2006, the body decided that the potential environmental, cultural and socioeconomic impacts of GE trees warranted the application of the Precautionary Approach. If strictly followed, the Precautionary Approach-a direct reference to the Precautionary Principle-would act as a de facto moratorium, since it requires a proof of safety before a new technology is released. Since GE trees have not been proven to be safe, but rather have numerous serious risks, under the Precautionary Approach, GE trees would not be released into the environment. This decision, however, has been openly flouted by countries like Brazil, New Zealand, South Africa, the US and several in Europe, who continue to allow outdoor field releases of GE trees. For this reason, the STOP GE Trees Campaign, which includes 137 groups from 34 countries, has returned to the CBD this year to demand a global ban on the release of GE trees into the environment. They have been joined in this call by hundreds of other organizations around the world as well as scientists and foresters, all of whom agree that GE trees are far too dangerous to be released into the environment.

There is however, mounting corporate pressure to deregulate GE trees so that they can be developed on a commercial scale for the future production of paper, biofuels, chemicals, plastics and other products. The increasing corporate focus on trees as the new raw material for the production of these materials is causing rising levels of concern. In particular, the growing emphasis on wood as a feedstock for so-called "second generation" agrofuels (unsustainably produced biofuels) is projected to cause a skyrocketing demand for trees. Agrofuels have also become an important driver for the development of genetically engineered trees designed to enhance agrofuel production.

Industry argues that wood-based agrofuels will help solve the food crisis because they will no longer use grain to produce fuel. They further insist that GE trees hold the answer to many environmental concerns-from forest decline, to pollution from paper mills, to the use of chemicals in forestry plantations. GE trees, however, pose what many consider to be the most serious threat to the world's remaining native forests since the invention of the chainsaw. Contrary to industry's "green" assertions, the engineering of trees is about strictly about speculative science and economic return.

The incentive to develop faster growing GE tree plantations to feed the rising global demand for timber will lead to the clearing of forests to make room for more economically valuable plantations, with serious consequences for forest biological diversity, forest-dependent communities and the climate. It will also result in the displacement of agriculture and on-going food crises. If farmers can get a better price for growing trees than for growing food, many will switch to trees.

Contamination is also a serious problem. If commercialized, GE trees will invariably result in contamination of native forests with GE tree traits, such as the ability to kill insects. In a survey documented in a 2005 report on GE trees prepared by the UN FAO, over half of GE tree scientists surveyed reported unintended contamination of native ecosystems and plants by GE trees as a major concern. Contamination of native forests by reduced-lignin GE trees, for example, could lead to serious forest health crises. Lignin is an important structural polymer that is also significantly responsible for the high levels of insect and disease resistance in trees. Insect resistance also conveys serious concerns. For example, the insects targeted by "Bt trees" are an important food source for nesting songbirds and other wildlife. At least one study has found that the Bt-toxin produced by insect-resistant trees remains active and lethal after ingested and can make its way up the food chain. Deployment of Bt trees on a large scale could also devastate pollinator populations and Bt can contaminate water.

These wide ranging and irreversible threats have led to a united call by civil society groups present at the CBD COP-9 to demand UN parties immediately and globally stop the release of GE trees into the environment. The issue is being hotly debated here with the African countries and a number of countries in Latin America unified in their support for stopping the release of GE trees; while on the other side, Brazil and its allies are attempting to weaken the previous decision in Curitiba and open the door to the large-scale commercialization of GE trees. The position of the EU has been very disappointing, and they have refused to back the effort to stop GE trees, even though several of the EU countries separately support the initiative.

This is emblematic of the overall shift to the right that many have been witnessing in the CBD at this year's COP. With a greater emphasis on catering to business and repeated attempted obstructions of the work of civil society, the CBD Secretariat has clearly demonstrated where its allegiance lies.




FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.