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"Genetically engineered crops represent a huge uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable ... The results could be catastrophic."

Dr. Barry Commoner, senior scientist
Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Queens College of New York

barren trees

"... we are confronted with the most powerful technology the world has ever known, and it is being rapidly deployed with almost no thought whatsoever to its consequences"

Susanne Wuerthele Ph.D., EPA scientist

barren trees


Genetically Engineered Trees

Genetic engineering of food crops has been a stealth technology; it went from 0 to 60 before we knew it - zero to 60 million acres - and with worldwide outcry is now holding steady at around 100 million acres. Meanwhile, the equally stealthy cousin of genetically engineered (GE) agriculture is poised for a similar explosive start: the genetic engineering of trees is proceeding in hundreds of test locations, and the possibility that the new genes spliced into GE trees will interfere with natural forests isn't a hypothetical risk but a certainty. During our lives, genetic engineering may do as much damage to forests and wildlife habitat as chain saws and sprawl.

This is not to say that every application of GE will necessarily be bad. There may be good uses for this technology; it may be possible to use it responsibly. But common sense should warn us that its commercial development in the absence of environmental safeguards is a prescription for disaster. Sierra Club opposes the out-of-doors deployment of genetic technologies because the genes are free -- as free as pollen on the wind -- to invade nature, and because once this has happened they can't be recalled. The arguments below are not intended to be inclusive but only to illustrate the nature of the problem.

Corporations, as Milton Friedman pointed out, exist not to be ethical but to make money. And from the standpoint of a forestry company, wildlife habitat has very little value. "Growing the bottom line" is what such companies try to do, and among their strategies are clear cutting and replanting with uniform and fast growing trees (tree plantations). An optimal match between the manufacturing process (cutting lumber and making paper goods) and the inputs can add to profits. These companies now see an opportunity to engineer trees which grow faster, contain less lignin, are more uniform in their characteristics, are more resistant to disease, and so forth. And unfortunately, if this is the way to make money, this is likely to be the future. Sierra Club believes that pressure from society in the form of legal prohibitions and restraints, stringent regulations and liability laws, and consumer activism must be brought to bear in order to hold the industry in check.

We are often told that commercialization of genetically engineered (GE'd) trees is at least several years away. This is also part of the "stealth" referred to above. GE'd stands of papaya trees are yielding commercial crops in Hawaii. The tip of the iceberg is already under our prow, not on the distant horizon. But it is for the traditional forestry industries of paper and lumber making that most research is presently being done. This is also an area which poses the greatest risk to nature.

The threat of GE'd trees interbreeding with wild trees is extreme. While many agricultural varieties are already quite different from their ancestors of thousands of years ago, this is not the case with trees. And genetically engineered trees could easily become invasive. Faster growing, limp, low-lignin trees resistant to common pests could easily become a kudzu-like threat, moving into our national parks and forests and changing their character forever.

Should we object if forestry companies do genetic engineering on their own land? Sierra Club opposes GE'd tree plantations on private land for all the same reasons we oppose other tree plantations. To put it briefly, tree plantations are not forests. This will be even more so of GE'd tree plantations. For instance, GE'd pines might be grown without all those "useless" pine cones. They may be herbicide resistant so that competing undergrowth can be eliminated. They may be pesticide resistant so that many of the insects which live in association with trees are poisoned. The result, then, may be a silent forest, one which doesn't support chipmunks or snakes at ground level, holding no birdsong in its branches, and with no raptors soaring above. Clearly, such a stand of trees is not really a forest. And worse, the damage can't be confined to private property as trees live for many years and can't be closely observed; "birth control" among trees is less reliable than among people and even genetic engineering can't guarantee that a branch won't decide to manufacture pollen. Pine pollen can blow hundreds of miles on the wind.

Should we oppose genetic "improvements" to trees on public lands? Sierra Club believes that we can't allow the industry to be judged by its hype and that patented genes are not an improvement over nature. We also must avoid only judging what one gene may do, because once hundreds of different genes -- most of them patented by industry and enjoying protection as "private property" -- are allowed access to public lands, the consequences of unintended combinations will be unpredictable.

GE trees will also be a danger in other nations, particularly in the underdeveloped world where conditions for effective regulation often don't exist.

For all of the above reasons, action is needed both at home and internationally to create a worldwide moratorium on the further development and planting of GE trees at least until an effective framework for public debate, unbiased scientific evaluation, and regulation in the public interest -- with the goal of preserving biodiversity -- can be brought into being.

If you agree with the above, does this make you a Luddite? This is an unfair characterization by our opponents. Sierra Club does not oppose the use of genetic science in indoor research or medical applications. Our policy about genetic research is that there should there should be more of it, more of it aimed at answering questions about long term effects on health and the environment, and less of it shielded by industrial secrecy provisions. We believe genetic technology belongs indoors, with containment, not out in the fields.

We would also point out that the United States is using twice as much paper per capita as other highly civilized nations (Europe, Japan). Let us not ask genetic engineering to do what could be accomplished by lower-tech means like putting a surcharge on junk mail.

Just as there are powerful economic incentives behind logging on public lands, sprawl, and other activities which Sierra Club opposes, there are similar incentives behind genetically engineered sylviculture. Not only are landed property rights and business rights involved, but also the patent rights to genetic code which are now privatizing the genetic heritage of our planet. It is Sierra Club's task, as always, to oppose such interests and to fight for the right of nature to exist for itself, and of future generations to enjoy and be inspired by it.


Suburban Genetics: Scientists Searching for a Perfect Lawn

By David Barboza
New York Times
July 8, 2000

MARYSVILLE, Ohio, July 7 -- Standing in long rows in Greenhouse No. 3 at the Scotts Company's research laboratory here are pots of grass that could be a suburbanite's dream come true.

The grass, which Scotts hopes will eventually carpet every lawn and golf course around the world, is genetically altered to withstand applications of the most potent weed killers and remain healthy and green.

Scotts, the world's largest maker of lawn and turf products, has other varieties in the works as well. One, nicknamed "low mow" by company scientists, has been designed to grow at a slower pace, thereby reducing the need for a lawn mower. Other strains could be drought-resistant, or bred to flourish in the winter.

The company is also working on genetically modified roses and other flowers that will bloom longer than the ones found in nature. And some scientists at Scotts are even talking about someday developing grasses in different colors.

"There's no end to what you might do," says Peter Day, director of the biotechnology center at Rutgers University, which is working with Scotts and Monsanto to develop the grasses. "You might put a luminescent gene in so that your grass might glow. Or, if your foot stepped on it, it would glow. You could also make novelty grasses."

The products, which are still in various stages of development, are not expected to reach the market for at least three years. But Scotts executives hope the company will then reap enormous profits in a market they believe could reach $10 billion.

First, though, they must contend with critics who are horrified by the notion of blanketing the world with genetically altered grass.

Environmental activists, already concerned about the genetically modified crops now growing on more than 70 million acres of American farmland, have attacked research laboratories experimenting with genetically altered grass and trees out of fear that the plants will fundamentally alter the environment. Others are speaking out against this latest form of genetic experimentation.

"This is going to put biotech in everyone's backyard," says Jeremy Rifkin, a longtime opponent of biotechnology. "It's going to open up a national debate, because everyone has a lawn. You're going to see a 'not in my backyard' phenomenon."

The American Society of Landscape Architects, with more than 14,000 members, joined Mr. Rifkin on Friday in petitioning the Agriculture Department, calling for the agency to suspend all field tests of the new grasses that Scotts is conducting.

"We are highly concerned with the use of genetically modified plants because they could potentially affect the whole ecosystem of native plants," said Janice Cervelli Schach, president of the society. "We want bodies outside of Monsanto and Scotts to assess these risks."

Many consumers are also wary of the genetically altered grass. "This whole genetic thing has gotten out of hand," said Nancy Childs, a 29-year-old restaurant owner who was loading her cart with some black-eyed Susans at a Home Depot store in Chicago. Genetically altered grass would be "convenient, but it's not normal," she said.

Scotts, however, says it is moving cautiously. It says it is conducting intensive research under the oversight of federal regulators to ensure that the new products are safe and to avoid the maelstrom that has erupted, at least in Europe, over genetically altered crops. The Agriculture Department regulates where Scotts can plant the experimental grass, and Scotts must obtain the department's permission before it can transport the grass anywhere.

"These products will give you more beautiful lawns and gardens," said Mark R. Schwartz, head of the branded plants group at Scotts, which is based in Columbus, Ohio. "And if there are problems with the technology, then it won't come out. But we're following all the rules, taking all the precautions."

Scotts, which is best known for its lawn fertilizer, Ortho pesticides and Miracle Gro plant food, is far ahead of its competitors in the race to create the raw material for perfect lawns. "That's how we make money, beautifying the world; trying to generate more beauty with less maintenance," Charles M. Berger, the company's chief executive, said. "And we'll use every tool in the toolbox. Biotech, that's just another tool in the toolbox."

While a company in Australia has been trying to create a blue rose through the use of biotechnology, scientists at Scotts have already developed genetically altered petunias and geraniums in laboratories in St. Louis.

Scotts says it will develop an even larger arsenal of "smart" plants with longer lasting blooms, different colors, and in some cases built-in pesticide.

Genetically altered grass, however, may be the first bioengineered lawn product to reach the market. Scientists at Monsanto and Rutgers have been working with Scotts for several years now to develop the new grass strains.

The first grass likely to be available is creeping bent grass, a strain that is used on golf courses around the world. Despite its name, it is a sturdy grass even when it is clipped as short as a quarter of an inch to form putting greens. But creeping bent grass is expensive to maintain and prone to infestation by weeds. David Bishop, a spokesman for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, says that is why genetically altered turf would be welcome on greens and fairways throughout the nation.

"Grasses on golf courses are maintained at the very edge of their tolerance," he said. "If you could produce a grass more tolerant at an eighth of an inch, that's less likely to go into stress and may require less water, that would be great."

Scotts executives say the first creeping bent grass could be Roundup Ready Grass, which is grass genetically modified to survive spraying of Roundup, the popular weed killer developed by Monsanto. The new grass could drastically reduce costs and maintenance at golf courses, and a drought-tolerant variety could reduce the amount of water needed to keep the turf healthy, Scotts executives say.

But activists are already sabotaging test plots in protest. Last month, a group calling itself the Anarchist Golfing Association caused more than $300,000 worth of damage at an Oregon research center that was testing genetically altered grass for golf courses.

Within the last year, activists have also vandalized a university lab in Minnesota and torched a research site belonging to Boise Cascade, the giant paper company, which had been experimenting with genetically altered trees.

Crystal Fricker, president of Pure Seed Testing Inc., a grass seed company in Hubbard, Ore., said that early last month activists destroyed pots of genetically altered grass at her company. But not before the company made some troubling discoveries about how widely the plants' pollen might be dispersed. "We were doing risk assessment and we learned pollen can flow over 1,000 feet," she said last week. "It could go 3,000 feet. And it cross-fertilizes," mating with a different strain of grass and creating a new genetically modified breed.

Ms. Fricker said the company's studies raised serious questions about whether genetically modified grass should be introduced into the environment. "Our concern is mostly with pollen flow," she said. "It's going to be a huge problem to keep this stuff contained."

Scotts says it is working to assess the risks. Pollen is unlikely to spread on golf courses, executives at Scotts say, because the grass on putting greens is not allowed to flower. As for lawns, the company says it may adopt a Monsanto technology called Terminator, which makes seeds sterile. That could prevent genes from jumping from one backyard to another.

Pedro Windsor, a 50-year-old minister in Chicago, says he would welcome the "mow me less" lawn as long as it did not harm the environment. "We probably pollute the environment more just by mowing the lawn," he said while buying some cedar mulch for his yard.

Scotts became involved in biotechnology in 1998, when it formed an alliance with Monsanto to produce genetically altered grass and ornamental plants. (Scotts also has the exclusive license to sell Roundup to consumers who garden.)

Much of the research is done here in Marysville, where Bob Harriman, the company's chief scientist and a former Monsanto employee, is working to bring genetically altered grass and flowers to market.

Recently, Dr. Harriman was in Greenhouse No. 3, holding a small pot of grass up to the light and marveling at its promise. "These were sprayed three days ago," he said, fingering the bright green blades of the grass, which had been used in a test of the Roundup weed killer. "They are in great condition. You can tell they have a nice green leaf structure."

Dr. Harriman says that a few months ago, scientists here used what they call a gene gun to shoot a bacterial gene into a tissue of grass in the hope of making it immune to Roundup. Days later, tiny blades of the new grass sprouted in a petri dish. Now, there are dozens of pots around him with full tufts of genetically modified creeping bent grass.

Dr. Harriman says that once the outcry over genetic engineering subsides, Scotts and other companies will will churn out countless varieties of grasses and ornamental flowers.

And the visions are not just of verdant lawns. Why not purple lawns? Or orange roses? What about seeds that would let the University of Florida use orange and blue grass seed in its football stadium, for example?

When the Scotts products do come to market, however, the company says it will not use the word "biotech" on the labels.

The word is already generating negative feedback in consumer surveys. "It seems unlikely we'd ever call them biotech," Mr. Berger of Scotts said. "We'd call them superior plants."

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