Genetically Engineered Trees

If each of us personally had to destroy the individual beings wiped out by the destruction of forest communities, we would refuse to do it. -- Alan Drengson

The battle we have fought, and are still fighting, for the forests is part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it ... So we must count on watching and striving for these trees, and should always be glad to find something so surely good and noble to strive for. -- John Muir

As we liquidate the ancient forests, we are redesigning the forests of the future. In fact, we are redesigning the entire world, and we are simultaneously throwing away nature's blueprint. -- Chris Maser

GM trees are a major threat to Gaian order, climate and the planet, as forests are a part of the Gaian climate control mechanism (see forthcoming Life the Universe and Everything for a detailed discussion of Gaian function and hierarchy, or Edward Goldsmith's excellent The Way).

GM trees pose the same threats as GM crops only more so. As with crops there is no nth generation evaluation for long term genetic instability. For trees this is not feasible within the human lifespan. GM crops only have to survive one season, trees have to survive a variety of climatic conditions. GM trees will have greater opportunity to cross-pollinate with wild relatives or near-relatives. Trees are more than individual species, they form the foundations of forests. When a tree dies, it still continues to make a major contribution to the forest ecosystem.

Forests are more than a collection of trees. Forests are complex ecosystems. We see this if we compare an ancient woodland with a wood a couple of centuries old. Ancient woodlands in Surrey have a diverse ground flora, archaeological features are preserved within the wood, their shape, their names are an integral feature of the landscape and man's relationship with the landscape. Small woods can be found at the intersection of field boundaries in Lincolnshire. They are a couple of centuries old and date from the last enclosures. They serve as fox covers or provide cover for game birds. The edges are straight, the ground flora is non-existent apart from a few weedy species. In mountainous areas of Wales, England and Scotland, plantations are an eyesore, within they are dark and devoid of life, the soil is destroyed, watercourses damaged. Forests form social structures, provide food, building materials. Mangrove forests hold coastlines together.

Although we don't eat wood, we do eat the produce of trees, nuts and fruit. GM oranges are being trialed in Valencia, Spain, papaya and walnuts in the US. Nut allergy is a common and growing problem that can prove fatal. GM trees would accelerate the trend.

Were GM trees to be developed as fast growing varieties, then the same problems would be experienced as with the growing of eucalyptus trees. Trees replacing food crops and native trees, damage to fragile ecosystems.

A major push for GM trees is coming from the oil industry. They wish to plant trees to act as a carbon sink. GM trees offer the potential of faster growing trees. The policy is flawed. Where would the trees be grown? Clear felling of mature or old growth forest would add to the carbon surplus, replacing those forests with fast growing plantations is no solution. The plantations only absorb carbon whilst growing, once maturity is reached the net effect is zero. To absorb 1% of the carbon emitted in the UK, the forested area would have to be increased by 40%, to absorb all the carbon emitted would require an area 1 1/2 times that of the UK to be forested. The ability of forests to absorb the carbon overload has been greatly exaggerated. It is no panacea, at best all it can do is buy a brief interlude. It also ignores the social and health consequences as a our towns and cities gridlock and large areas of the countryside are overlaid with highways. The only long-term solution is to reduce the burning of fossil fuels.

There is a limit on how hotter the atmosphere can get without causing major climatic changes, the average global temperature increase is not distributed uniformly. A maximum increase of 1 degree centigrade and a maximum rate of increase of 0.1 degrees centigrade per decade. This sets an upper limit on the maximum amount of carbon that can be emitted into the atmosphere and the rate of that emission. Depending upon the model used we can set a maximum of 225 billion tonnes of carbon (this assumes zero forest destruction!). Translated to oil reserves, we can only burn a fraction of known reserves. Frontier fields are adding to known reserves, as are more efficient means of extraction. Only recently Sudan has come on stream as a producer. BP alone, since the Climate Convention, and up to the Kyoto agreement, increased its known oil reserves from 10 million tonnes of carbon to over 60 million tonnes. What this means in terms of climate stability, is that there is only one place for the oil and that is for it to stay in the ground.

Global warming will not lead to a uniform temperature increase. The rising temperature will trigger a number of non-linear effects in interlocking Gaian loops. Melting of the polar ice caps reduces the Earth's albedo, more heat is absorbed by dark oceans than white, highly reflective ice. Melting of the ice at the North Pole puts fresh water into the sea. This reduces, could even stop, the pump that drives the Gulf Stream. Should the Gulf Stream fail or terminate south of Western Europe, Western Europe would experience winter temperatures normally associated with Siberia or Labrador. A rise in sea temperature destroys phytoplankton, which seed clouds. A rise in sea temperature increases the volume of sea water. Warm oceans turn from carbon sinks to carbon sources. Warmer seas increase the likelihood of tropical storms. Coral reefs are dying due to raised sea temperatures. Coral reefs protect coasts. Destruction of mangrove forests for shrimp farms accelerates coastal destruction, multiplying the effects of rising sea levels.

Cutting down the Amazon rainforest adds to the carbon load. Although a mature system, the Amazon, as is the case for remaining tropical rainforests, is adding biomass, thus acts as a net carbon sink. The clouds above the Amazon reflect sunlight, protect the ground beneath. The heat extracted from the Amazon finds its way to Western Europe as warm, wet westerlies.

It is possible to produce thin-film amorphous silicon photovoltaic roof tiles at a price that makes houses and other buildings self-sufficient in electricity, at a price comparable with fossil fuel generation, if the tiles are mass produced. The cost of a factory of sufficient size to realise economies of scale would be $100 million, less than the cost of a single leg of an oil rig.

Fletcher Challenge Forests, International Paper, Monsanto and Westvaco Corporation have formed a $60 million joint venture to develop GM trees. The stated aim is to produce improvements for the 'forestry market'. All four companies have a poor environmental record. Unlike the bullshit that has surrounded GM crops there is not even a pretence of any social, health or environmental benefits.

WTO is working hard to remove what little social and environmental protection exists on logging. Proposals before the Seattle Millennium Round (November 1999) include zero-tariffs on timber trade. This would include non-tariff barriers to trade such as eco-labelling, sustainable forestry and would run counter to forestry protection and measures aimed at climate stabilisation.

12 July 1999, activists destroyed a test plot of GM trees at Jealott's Hill, near Bracknell, Berkshire (West of London), by cutting down the trees and stripping bark. AstraZeneca condemned the attack, claiming the trees were no danger to the environment. The only other GM trees in the UK were growing at Derbyshire University and were destroyed the previous year.

Web Resources


A SEED Europe, Demystifying the WTO, A SEED Europe, June 1999

Anon, The Oil Industry: Pollution, Politics and Public Relations, Do or Die: Voices From Earth First!, No 7

Homero Aridjis, Burning Forests: Arson by Developers, The Ecologist, November/December 1998

BBC, report on the growing of trees to combat salinization in Western Australia, Four Corners, Radio 4, BBC, 23 August 1999

Libby Brooks & Paul Brown, Felled in the name of a natural justice, The Guardian, 13 July 1999

Peter Bunyard, How Climate Change Could Spiral Out of Control, The Ecologist, March/April 1999

Peter Bunyard, How Global Warming Could Cause Northern Europe to Freeze, The Ecologist, March/April 1999

Peter Bunyard, Eradicating the Amazon Rainforests will Wreak Havoc on Climate, The Ecologist, March/April 1999

Catherine Caufield, In the Rainforest, Picador, 1986

Chris Genovali, Canada's Great Bear Raincoast at Risk, The Ecologist, November/December 1998

Grover Foley, The Threat of Rising Seas, The Ecologist, March/April 1999

Edward Goldsmith, The Way: An Ecological World-View, Themis Books, 1996

Karen Grant, Europe's Forests: A campaign guide, A SEED Europe, January 1999

Tony Juniper & Sarah Tyack, A Policy Imperative: Save and Plant Trees, The Ecologist, March/April 1999

Mae-Wan Ho, Genetic Engineering, Dream or Nightmare?: The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Gateway Books, 1998

Jeremy Leggett, Solar PV: Talisman for Hope in the Greenhouse, The Ecologist, March/April 1999

James Lovelock, Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine, Gaia Books, 1991

Victor Menotti, Globalisation and the Acceleration of Forest Destruction since Rio, The Ecologist, November/December 1998

Victor Menotti, Forest Destruction and Globalisation, The Ecologist, May/June 1999

Norman Myers, The Primary Source: Tropical Forests and Our Future, Norton, 1984

David W Orr, Technological Fundamentalism, The Ecologist, November/December 1998

Keith Parkins, Life the Universe and Everything, to be published

Keith Parkins, Gaia, to be published

Keith Parkins, Genetic Engineering - Paradise on Earth or a Descent into Hell?, August 1999

Keith Parkins, Tropical Shrimp Farms, July 1999

Keith Parkins, Soft Energy Paths, July 1999

Oliver Rackham, Trees and Woodlands in the British Countryside, Dent, 1976

Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside, Dent, 1986

Vandana Shiva & J Bandyopadhyay, Eucalyptus: A Disastrous Tree for India, The Ecologist, Vol 13 No 5, 1983

Mathew Spencer, Fossil Crunch: The Arithmetic of Climate Protection, The Ecologist, March/April 1999

Pandurang Ummayya & Bharat Dogra, A War Against Eucalyptus, The Ecologist, Vol 13 No 5, 1983

Hugh Warwick, The Next GM Threat: Frankenstein Trees, The Ecologist, July 1999

Gaia index ~ Genetic Engineering
(c) Keith Parkins 1999 -- September 1999 rev 2