Genetically engineered (GE or genetically modified) trees threaten the biodiversity of native forests, are false solutions to the climate change crisis and can have unpredictable and irreversible consequences.
GE trees pose a greater threat of contamination than seen with GE crop plants, because trees live for decades, have so many nearby wild relatives and their pollen travels hundreds of miles. The scenario of contamination from trees genetically engineered to be insect resistance via Bt (as in past government field trials in Quebec), for example, warns of serious biodiversity impacts because Bt targets lepidoptera, a main food source for many birds.
In Canada: Groups can sign the letter asking the Government of Canada to ban GE trees. Contact us to sign.
For the health and future of Canada’s forest ecosystems and those around the world:
1. We, the undersigned, ask for an end to existing field trials in Canada and an end to approvals for field trials of genetically engineered trees in Canada
2. We ask for an end to the use of public funds for field-testing and an end to field-testing at government research stations
3. We call upon the Canadian Government to support a global moratorium on field testing, planting and commercial use of genetically engineered trees because of the serious risks they pose to biological diversity and to forest ecosystems in Canada and across the world
April 2019 – Report: Biotechnology For Forest Health? The Test Case Of The Genetically Engineered American Chestnut An in-depth white paper produced by the Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees, Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP) and Biofuelwatch describes the science and risks associated with plans to release genetically engineered American chestnut trees (GE AC) into forests. If approved it would be the first GMO plant allowed to grow freely in the wild. The report details the risks and corporate influences involved in plan to use iconic American Chestnut tree as Trojan Horse to win regulatory approval for genetically engineered trees.
March 2019 – CBAN Report: GM Contamination in Canada: The failure to contain living modified organisms – Incidents and impacts documents in one place, for the first time, escapes and contamination incidents with genetically engineered (genetically modified or GM) organisms) that have occurred in Canada. These experiences provide lessons that need to be evaluated and understood before any more GM plants and animals are released.
In the case of GM trees, the chance of contamination is high, as are the stakes. GM contamination of native forests will have unpredictable and complex impacts on forest ecosystems and biodiversity. Commercial cultivation and outdoor tests of chestnuts, poplars, and pines and other conifers could pose a high risk of gene flow to native forests, including into Canada from the US.
Why are trees being engineered?
The main traits being engineered into trees are herbicide tolerance so that tree plantations can be sprayed with herbicides that won’t kill the trees; insect resistance to create a tree that is toxic to pests; reduced lignin so that trees can be processed into ethanol or paper cheaper; increased cellulose so that trees can produce more ethanol or paper; faster growth to speed up the planting-harvesting cycle; and cold tolerance so that GE trees can be planted in colder climates. All of these traits would be used in industrial tree plantations. With the new boom in the biofuels market, corporations are developing trees as a potential source of biomass for ethanol. The main tree species being experimented on are from the groups of pine, spruce, poplar and eucalyptus.
What are the risks?
Trees live for decades and their pollen travels for hundreds of miles. For example, researchers have found that 50% of pollen from the loblolly pine can still germinate after drifting 41 kilometres from the source and up to an altitude of 610 metres.The contamination of forests with GE tree pollen or seeds could devastate ecosystems and biodiversity. Once contamination begins it cannot be stopped and is irreversible. GE trees will contaminate forests, which themselves will become contaminants in a never-ending cycle of living pollution. For further discussion of contamination see CBAN’s 2019 report GM Contamination in Canada.
- The field-testing and commercialization of insect resistant (Bt) trees, toxic to a class of insects (Lepidoptera), will, as recent studies indicate, harm soil and aquatic ecosystems as well as effect non-target insects. This in turn will impact biodiversity and the food chain of local fauna, including birds and other organisms.
- The genetic engineering of trees to be cold tolerant threatens to expand the environmental and social impacts of plantations into colder regions as well as bring the threat of new invasive species.
- The commercialization of herbicide tolerant trees will only add to the use of pesticides in tree plantations and the accompanying serious environmental impacts, including the destruction of local flora and impacts on human health.
- Of particular concern is the extensive research being carried out to develop trees with reduced or modified lignin for the production of cellulosic biofuels. Lignin is an important structural polymer (it helps trees stand) that is significant in the defense against insects and disease as well as in water conductivity through the plant. Low-lignin trees would be more susceptible to disease and pests and would be vulnerable in windstorms. The spread of low-lignin trees and their genes via seed and pollen to forests could be devastating.
Already native forests in countries around the world are being destroyed to clear land for large industrial pulp, timber and biofuel (oil palm) plantations. Both clearings and monoculture plantations are severely affecting forest biodiversity, worsening global warming, and threatening the lives, livelihoods, and cultures of forest and Indigenous peoples and communities. The commercialization of GE trees will not only expand and entrench tree monocultures, it will add extremely dangerous and unpredictable environmental risks as well as new social, cultural and economic impacts.
“GE trees have the potential to wreak ecological havoc throughout the world’s native forests. GE Trees could also impact wildlife as well as rural and indigenous communities that depend on intact forests for their food, shelter, water, livelihood and cultural practices. As a geneticist, I believe there are far too many unknown and unanswered questions to be growing genetically engineered plants— food crops or trees—in open fields. GE trees should not be released into the environment in commercial plantations and any outdoor test plots or existing plantations should be removed.” – Dr. David Suzuki
GE Tree Field Trials in Canada
Open-air field trials of GE poplar trees may already pose contamination threats to Canadian forests. Even without these tests, the field trials currently underway in the United States could pose a significant threat to Canadian forest ecosystems.
- In Canada, there have been one or two field trials in any given year since 1997.
- Since 2000, open-air field tests have been carried out by government researchers at the Canadian Forest Service and by universities, not yet by private companies.
- The only current field test has over 2000 GE poplar trees, for genetic research, at Queen’s University in Ontario (begun via public funds from Genome Canada). Previously, there have also been tests with genetically engineered poplar at the Laurentian Forestry Centre of the Canadian Forest Service in Quebec.
- A list of past GE tree field trials is posted in CBAN’s GMO Inquiry 2015 Report Are GM Crops Better for the Environment?
- Factsheet: Genetically Engineered Trees, CBAN October 2015
- Report: Analysis of the State of GE Trees and Advanced Bioenergy Global Justice Ecology Project, March 2012
- Article: Genetically Engineered Trees: A Cure Worse than the Disease, Rachel Smolker, CommonDreams, March 2015
- Article: Engineering Chestnut Trees? Biotechnology Takes a Walk in the Wood, Rachel Smolker, December 2014
- Article: Frankenforests: GE Trees Threaten Ecosystem Collapse, Dara Colwell, AlterNet, August 2, 2007
- Report: GE Trees, Cellulosic Biofuels & Destruction of Forest Biological Diversity Global Justice Ecology Project and the Global Forest Coalition, 2008
August 2018: In a paper on the results of the largest field test of genetically engineered trees to date, researchers at Oregon State University claimed they had genetically engineered sterility into poplar trees, to help address contamination concerns. The real story of the study, however, is that the risks of genetically engineering trees are too great and can never fully be known.“What happens when sterility fails and allows GE trees to escape? Unreliable sterility technologies would enhance rather than remove the dangers of GE tree contamination,” responded Lucy Sharratt of CBAN. Press Release, August 8, 2018: Claims of Successful Genetically Engineered Tree Sterility Overblown: Long-term risks and threats of GE trees remain unanswered Joint Statement from: Global Justice Ecology Project, Indigenous Environmental Network, Rural Coalition, Biofuelwatch, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network
December 2017: Funders of the GE American chestnut program at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) over the years include both Monsanto and ArborGen. ArborGen is a GE tree research and development company based in South Carolina that is jointly owned by timber multinationals International Paper and MeadWestvaco (now WestRock).
May 2017: Tree biotechnology company ArborGen is requesting an unprecedented US approval: a genetically engineered (GE) “freeze tolerant” eucalyptus tree. If approved, this will be the first-ever GE forest tree to be commercially grown in the US. Approval would be a precedent-setting action that could open the door to other GE trees such as poplar and pine that would impact regions all over North America. Click here for more information.
September 28, 2015: A plan by activists in the US to inform the President and CEO of ArborGen that over 250,000 people signed letters and petitions rejecting genetically engineered trees was interrupted when police arrested the two people who intended to deliver that message. Click here to read the details.
March 5, 2015 300 peasants took over the building where the Brazilian Biosafety Commission (CTNBio) was meeting to decide about approving GE eucalyptus trees. The meeting was cancelled. On the same morning, 1,000 women took over operations of Futuragene across Brazil. The action included the destruction of GE eucalyptus seedlings. Click here for photos and details. March 3 2015 was declared an emergency global day of action against GE trees ahead of the meeting.
Press Release – January 29 2015: Outrage Over US Secret Approval of Genetically Engineered Trees: Groups Condemn US for Bowing to Industry, Ignoring Widespread Public Opposition
“Approvals of genetically engineered trees just over our border could put Canada’s forest ecosystems at risk. The loblolly pine is grown in the US southeast but what forest trees could the US government approve next? The Canadian government needs to look into the possible contamination risks from GE tree experiments and approvals in the US, and field trials in our own backyard,” said Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of CBAN
“We do not have confidence that scientists in biotechnology labs can outsmart millions of years of evolution, nor understand and anticipate all of the intricacies, shifting dynamics or interactions that make up ecology and evolution”– Rachel Smolker, BiofuelWatch
Press Release, September 4, 2014: Groups unite to call on Brazil to deny application to legalize genetically engineered eucalyptus trees Two letters signed by hundreds of organizations from around the world, including CBAN, were delivered today to the Brazilian National Technical Biosafety Commission (CTNBio) calling on them to deny a pending request by the FuturaGene Corporation to commercially release genetically engineered (GE) eucalyptus trees in Brazil. This occurred in the capital Brasilia during a CTNBio public hearing on the FuturaGene request. CTNBio is the Brazilian governmental institution charged with authorizing commercial release of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in that country. The letters were delivered to CTNBio by representatives of Terra de Direitos, The Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), La Via Campesina Brazil, and the Small Farmers Movement (MPA).
FuturaGene, a biotechnology firm owned by Brazilian pulp and paper company Suzano, has requested authorization from the Brazilian Biosafety Commission (CTNBio) for the commercial release of its genetically engineered eucalyptus trees in Brazil.
- The Brazilian open letter explains, if approved, use of GE eucalyptus trees will aggravate the already well-known negative impacts that non-GE industrial eucalyptus tree plantations already pose to communities´ livelihoods.
- The supporting letter protesting the legalization of genetically engineered trees
CBAN is a founding member and Steering Committee Member of the North American STOP GE Trees Campaign and is working with groups across the world for a global ban on GE trees. Check out the History and Photos of the Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees
GE tree research and development company ArborGen has a request pending with the US Department of Agriculture to commercially sell hundreds of millions of cold-tolerant GE eucalyptus seedlings. Meanwhile, ArborGen is undergoing a major restructuring of their executive staff following the failure, in 2011, of the company going public on the NASDAQ.
May 2013: The US public overwhelming rejected steps toward the legalization of genetically engineered trees during the USDA public comment period (by 99%). The genetically engineered (GE) tree company ArborGen is requesting permission to commercially sell their GE freeze-tolerant eucalyptus trees. “We will continue to hold the government accountable to the will of the people, rather than corporate interests,” said Anne Petermann of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees
April 2012, New Zealand: Nearly 400 genetically engineered pine trees were destroyed during an April 7 weekend break-in at a one-hectare plantation in New Zealand run by the crown research institute called Scion. Scion had planted 375 genetically engineered radiata pines last year to test herbicide resistance and study reproductive development.
May 2011: With shaken confidence over the commercial future of the technology, the genetically engineered (GE) tree company ArborGen, a joint project of timber corporations International Paper, MeadWestvaco and Rubicon, decided suddenly to change its plans and not sell shares in ArborGen publicly on the NASDAQ exchange.
October, 2011: An alliance of conservation organizations has lost its suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over its approval of open-air field tests of a genetically engineered (GE) hybrid of eucalyptus tree across the southern United States. “We’re not terribly discouraged,” said Anne Petermann, executive director of the Global Justice Ecology Project and the coordinator of the STOP GE Trees Campaign. “We’ll wait until the next stage of the regulatory process and intervene there,” said Mike Stark of the Center for Biological Diversity.
The permit, issued to a company called ArborGen, which is a joint initiative of International Paper, MeadWestvaco and Rubicon, was approved May 12 with minimal environmental review. It authorizes the experimental planting and flowering of a new, genetically engineered hybrid on 28 secret sites across seven southern states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.
ArborGen hopes its GE “cold-tolerant” Eucalyptus will become widely planted for pulp and biomass. But eucalyptus trees are not native to the United States and are known to become invasive, displacing native wildlife and plants in various areas around the country and increasing wildfire risk. Click here for more information on the case.
U.S. government approval of GE eucalyptus trees sets a dangerous precedent to allow other experimental GE forest trees, including poplar and pine, that would inevitably and irreversibly contaminate native trees with destructive GE traits, devastating forest ecosystems and wildlife. Once GE trees escape, there is no way to call them back. The only way to stop genetic contamination of native forests is to ban the commercial release of GE trees before it is too late.
May 4, 2010, Press Release – New Studies Expose Potential Risks of GMO Trees
Claire Williams of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in the U.S. and her colleagues have found that pollen from the loblolly pine can still germinate after drifting long distances. Williams and her colleagues used a hand-held device called a spore sampler to capture and analyze pollen found off the southeastern coast of the U.S. Sampling by helicopter and by ferry, they found viable pine pollen as far as 2,000 feet in the air and 25 miles offshore.“Until then, the highest pine pollen had ever been found in the atmosphere was 1000 feet,” comments Williams. The research findings have been published in the American Journal of Botany.
GM loblolly pine has not been approved for commercial planting. GM varieties are planted in the U.S. in field trials, however. The researchers say her finding means that it would be difficult to contain the pollen from GM loblolly pine trees. The long life span of pine trees makes it difficult to evaluate the environmental impacts of GM varieties, adds Williams. The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Report from the UN Meeting 2008
Governments at the UN meeting in May 2008 failed to ban GE trees You can read the CBAN Daily Blog from the UN meeting in Germany to find out what exactly happened.
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity could have established an international moratorium on the field testing and commercial release of GE trees at the major COP9 meeting May 19-30 in Germany. But Canada, Brazil, and Colombia, with Australia and New Zealand worked against this proposal from African countries.
CBAN joined with international partners to present the potential negative impacts of GE Trees.
- Click here to read the CBAN briefing to the United Nations meeting. (6 pages)
- This briefing is a critique of the background document prepared by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. (17 pages)
- CBAN has also signed the international open letter demanding a ban on genetically engineered (GE) trees.