Mutant Trees

Genetically Engineered (Mutant) Trees Workshop
BioDevastation 2000 Conference
March 26, 2000

Orin Langelle, Native Forest Network &
Action for Community and Ecology in the Regions of Central America (ACERCA)
Mick Petrie,
Native Forest Network
Alvaro Gonzalez Gervasio,
World Rainforest Movement
Ricarda Steinbrecher,
Women's Environmental Network

Notes taken and web sites located by Karl Davies for the Forest Stewards Guild .

Orin Langelle

Many eucalyptus plantations in Chiapas Mexico now use mutant tree material.  New propagation technologies have made these trees easy to produce.  The primary market is for pulp for paper to be used in the maquiladoro factories further north in Mexico.  Most tree selections are Roundup-Ready or Bt toxic.

Part of the purpose of NAFTA was to open up Mexico and other southern countries to transnational paper companies for planting mutant trees.  Community land titles were handed over to corporations for them to use as they chose.

Intellectual property rights protected by NAFTA and the WTO allow paper companies to patent their mutant trees and thereby protect their investments in them.

The US pulp and paper industry is rapidly going mutant.  International Paper, Westvaco and other corporations have allied themselves with Monsanto to produce herbicide-tolerant trees for international markets.  Shell Oil, BP and Toyota are also on the scene planting mutant trees for carbon credits.

Alvaro Gonzales

New mutant plantations are displacing indigenous peoples.  Plantations are on former agricultural land and on cutover forest land.  Non-mutant trees are also being planted on a large scale.  Mutant trees are the most recent extension of industrial forestry.

They're mostly pulp plantations: eucalyptus and oil palm (particularly in Southeast Asia).  There are also carbon sink plantations being used for pollution/carbon offsets.  There's no scientific basis to the claims that these plantations really do offset carbon emissions.  Some teak and other hardwoods are being planted too, but not so much because there's still a lot left in native forests.

Rapidly growing trees rapidly deplete soils.  Whole tree harvesting leaves little organic material to go back into the soil.  It's likely that after a few rotations of these trees, soils will be drastically reduced in their abilities to support any kind of plant growth. 

Mick Petrie

There has been a huge increase in the amount of mutant tree research worldwide over the past few years.  Most of it is by Monsanto and by joint venture companies, such as IP-Monsanto, ForBio-Monsanto and other new ventures. 

The $400 billion global annual wood trade is the driving force.  NAFTA and the WTO have helped to facilitate this trade and the creation of the joint ventures by reducing regulation, by opening up national markets, and by protecting proprietary technologies.

US consumers use 800 pounds per year of paper products.  Consumers in other nations use considerably less, but the huge demand is driving the planting of mutant plantations in many third world/southern nations.

Herbicide tolerance is the primary area of research at this time.  Most of this research is driven by Monsanto, which has identified the enzymes that block susceptibility to its glyphosate (Roundup) herbicide.  Herbicide tolerant trees allow heavy use of Roundup to control competition with weeds during the trees' early development. 

Bt production is also very important.  Trees engineered with Bt have the toxic product of the bacteria in all cells.  Ingestion of the toxin by soil micro-organisms has been shown to kill these life forms as well as the insects that eat leaves and twigs.

Low lignin content is a high research priority because one third of the dry weight of wood is lignin, which cannot be used by the pulp industry.  Of course lignin gives trees their rigid structure.  This has led to fears of "wobbly mutant trees."

Rapid growth is another desirable trait for obvious reasons.  Some eucalypti are ready for harvest in as little as 4-5 years.    But these trees deplete soil nutrients very rapidly, and they can even negatively impact local hydrological regimes.  

Bioremediation is another research focus, to develop trees that will remove toxic metals and other pollutants from the soil.  Some studies have indicated that these trees may simply move the metals from the soil into the air through trees' leaves.  But even if the trees do sequester the metals, what's to be done with the wood? 

Sterilization techniques have been sought to calm down the public about concerns that the above traits will move into wild species through horizontal gene transfer.  As yet, these efforts have been unsuccessful.  But if successful, these ventures will produce trees that will have no flowers or seed, and will be barren for insects, birds and other animals. 

The solution to all the problems of mutant trees is quite simple, but quite difficult: 1) Prohibit patenting of any and all life forms.  2) Force biotech corporations to prove no harm from their inventions.

Ricarda Steinbrecher

Mutant research is being done on approximately 35 different tree species.  Some species are relatively easy to mutate, such as poplars.  But most other species are more difficult to mutate.  Mutant methods are moving ahead quickly. 

Trees are much more difficult to mutate than other plants because different genetic traits make them susceptible to different insects and diseases at different stages in their developments.  Also, trees are subject to more stresses over longer periods of time than other plants.  Unlike annual plants, they have to withstand cold winter temperatures, drought and/or dry growing sites, ice/snow/wind storms.   

Cloned plantations are prone to devastating losses due to insects and diseases because, even though they may be engineered to withstand certain stresses, such as attacks by certain insects or diseases, there are always other insects and diseases cannot be anticipated. 

Research results indicating problems with mutant trees have been censored by university and corporate researchers.  One prominent university researcher is known to have publicly warned a PhD student against publishing research results that would have been harmful to the interests of the researcher's corporate sponsors.   

Anti-Mutant Tree Campaign

Greenpeace, Native Forest Network and Rainforest Action Network are all working on papers describing the dangers of mutant trees.  These papers will be available soon.

An international conference on mutant trees should be organized as soon as possible. 

Lawsuits should be initiated, particularly against those corporations that are selling Bt toxic trees because of their potential for damage to beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms.

Boycotts of mutant paper products should be initiated.  Sources of non-mutant paper should be identified and supported.

Test plots of mutant trees should be identified through Freedom of Information Act requests to all universities that may be involved in this research.

Internet web sites should be set up to provide information.  Forestry and environmental newsgroups and listservs should be used to disseminate information.

Web Sites

The Orchard of Dr Moreau...
Corporate Watch

The Next GM Threat: Frankenstein Forests
The Ecologist July 1999
By Hugh Warwick

A BAN report on genetically engineered trees
By the Bioengineering Action Network

Forestry-biotech joint ventures
A Scoping Study for WWF

Genetically Engineered Trees
By Keith Parkins September 1999

Supertrees: ForBio of Australia is engineering better trees.
The potential gain is enormous.
August 10, 1998
By Bob Johnstone

Gene science takes to the trees
By Robert Gottliebsen

Firms Work on Building a Better Tree, Pine Clones
USA Today
Tim Friend
December 20, 1997