Sunday, May 28, 2006

Will the Genetically Engineered Bird Sing as Sweetly?

The recent EU ban of genetically engineered crops has focused attention on GMOs, genetically modified organisms. Less well known known are genetically engineered trees. It is thought that such trees will one day become commonplace.

The research on trees is, of course, directed toward profit, making faster growth and processing of fruits and nuts "more efficient". Amongst other things, scientists are experimenting with a natural pesticide, BT. Unfortunately, any changes will create other problems. Ann Petermann of Global Justice Ecology:


...Each of these characteristics will have devastating consequences on the environment, says Petermann. "Biotechnology is so revolutionary that we know almost nothing about it...but so far everything has been one problem after another." For example, trees with increased levels of BT are supposed to result in a decrease in sprayed pesticides, but the opposite has been the case.

David Suzuki continues:

Trees with increased levels of BT result in the 'natural' selection of insects that are more resistant to the BT pesticide. This, in turn, necessitates higher pesticide levels, which can inadvertently kill non-target species. In the film 'A Silent Forest: The Growing Threat, Genetically Engineered Trees,' David Suzuki explains that the BT pesticide will also leach into the ecological cycle through the roots, leaves, flowers, and pollen. "A forest that kills insects would be catastrophic," says Suzuki.

And attempts to make the trees sterile will likely prove ultimately fruitless.

Scientists are also working on creating sterile GE trees to prevent pollination of native trees; however, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), it is nearly impossible to control gene flow through pollen and seed dispersal - even at a 95 percent success rate. As Petermann points out, "the sterilized trees are producing nothing, and the other 5% are still sending out tainted genes situation." ...

And such trees will offer little or nothing of value to the surrounding forest.

...By bearing no flowers, fruit, or nuts, the sterile trees will offer little nourishment to the wildlife around them, and accidental contamination of native forests by the non-sterile - but genetically modified - trees will result in unforeseeable upsets to the ecological balance. For example, according to Greenpeace's website, "reduced lignin could speed up the decomposition of trees, altering soil ecology, structure and fertility."

The dispersal of genetic material is inevitable and the experiences of China, Thailand and Hawaill have provided clear evidence.

The Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science has already found genes from the GE poplars in Xinjiang, China appearing in natural varieties, and researchers have found backyard and organic papaya trees in Thailand and Hawaii contaminated by pollen from nearby GE papaya plantations.

It is also believed that the faster growing trees will deplete nutrients at a faster rate.

Unfortunately, the US is a leader in this area.

The United States has a large stake in biotechnology, with 150 test plots conducting over two thirds of the world's GE tree research. ...

I fear that, eventually, man-made ecosystems of various kinds will supercede the natural ones, that wilderness areas will become a Disneyworld for whatever genetically unaltered wildlife still exists.


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