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GM Industry Puts Human Gene into Rice

By Geoffrey Lean
The Independent/UK
April 24, 2005

Scientists have begun putting genes from human beings into food crops in a dramatic extension of genetic modification. The move, which is causing disgust and revulsion among critics, is bound to strengthen accusations that GM technology is creating "Frankenstein foods" and drive the controversy surrounding it to new heights.

Even before this development, many people, including Prince Charles, have opposed the technology on the grounds that it is playing God by creating unnatural combinations of living things.

Environmentalists say that no one will want to eat the partially human-derived food because it will smack of cannibalism.

But supporters say that the controversial new departure presents no ethical problems and could bring environmental benefits.

In the first modification of its kind, Japanese researchers have inserted a gene from the human liver into rice to enable it to digest pesticides and industrial chemicals. The gene makes an enzyme, code-named CPY2B6, which is particularly good at breaking down harmful chemicals in the body.

Present GM crops are modified with genes from bacteria to make them tolerate herbicides, so that they are not harmed when fields are sprayed to kill weeds. But most of them are only able to deal with a single herbicide, which means that it has to be used over and over again, allowing weeds to build up resistance to it.

But the researchers at the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba, north of Tokyo, have found that adding the human touch gave the rice immunity to 13 different herbicides. This would mean that weeds could be kept down by constantly changing the chemicals used.

Supporting scientists say that the gene could also help to beat pollution.

Professor Richard Meilan of Purdue University in Indiana, who has worked with a similar gene from rabbits, says that plants modified with it could "clean up toxins" from contaminated land. They might even destroy them so effectively that crops grown on the polluted soil could be fit to eat.

But he and other scientists caution that if the gene were to escape to wild relatives of the rice it could create particularly vicious superweeds that were resistant to a wide range of herbicides.

He adds: "I do not have any ethical issue with using human genes to engineer plants", dismissing talk of "Frankenstein foods" as "rubbish". He believes that that European opposition to GM crops and food is fuelled by agricultural protectionism.

But Sue Mayer, director of GeneWatch UK, said yesterday: "I don't think that anyone will want to buy this rice. People have already expressed disgust about using human genes, and already feel that their concerns are being ignored by the biotech industry. This will just undermine their confidence even more."

Pete Riley, director of the anti-GM pressure group Five Year Freeze, said: "I am not surprised by this.

"The industry is capable of anything and this development certainly smacks of Frankenstein."


Dr. Ignacio Chapela Takes UC to Court, Citing Discrimination

By Preeti Piplani
April 19, 2005

Chapela Says His Origin, Criticism of UC Sparked Retaliation

UC Berkeley associate professor Ignacio Chapela took his ongoing battle for tenure to court yesterday, claiming his national origin and criticism of a UC research contract drove UC to deny him tenure. Chapela, an associate professor of microbial biology, was denied tenure twice in 2003, after receiving nearly unanimous support from the first two tenure committees. He lost his bid for tenure when it was rejected by the third and final committee.

He has since gained immense support from his followers, who claim his rejection was a response to his opposition to UC research contracts and other controversial articles he published.

"It was time to open my case up to the purview of the state of California, the nation and the world," Chapela said in a press conference Monday. "It is with happiness that I come to the court to do what the university has not been able to do."

In January, Chapela and the university reached a mutual agreement to conduct a new tenure review process, said George Strait, assistant vice chancellor of public affairs. The final review committee is set to make its revised recommendation in two weeks, but Chapela went forward with the suit because he faced an April 21 deadline for filing a discrimination lawsuit.

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau has ultimate authority on granting tenure.

Because the committee will make its recommendation after this week's filing deadline, the future of the lawsuit depends on the chancellor's decision, said Chapela's attorney, Daniel Siegel.

In the lawsuit, Chapela argues that his criticism of genetically modified organisms in a 2001 Nature magazine article made him a victim of retaliation by the university. The magazine later rescinded its support of the article, saying that "the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the original paper." He has maintained that the magazine's action was because of corporate pressures on the publication.

Chapela, originally from Mexico, also claims to be a victim of racial discrimination during the tenure process.

Finally, he claims that the university committed fraud by not disclosing significant information about the criteria required for obtaining tenure.

UC Berkeley officials could not comment on the specifics of Chapela's case, but Strait said the tenure process has multiple steps so no one individual has influence over the process.

"(UC Berkeley's) review process is designed among the most rigorous processes in the entire United States, and it has to be because we have the best faculty," he said.

In 1998, Chapela's outspoken criticism of the university's $25 million research agreement with a Swiss biotechnology corporation, Novartis, drew national attention. At the time, Chapela said any such agreement with a private interest like Novartis would prevent the university's research mission of serving the public good.

Siegel said UC Berkeley claims tenure is determined on the basis of teaching, research and commitment to the university through service, but it fails to mention another factor.

"The other requirement (for tenure) is a requirement of political correctness - it is one that doesn't speak out against private funding," Siegel said.

He added that Chapela's outspoken criticism of Novartis "derailed a tenure case that is as close to a sure thing on this campus." 19apr2005


'Rush to Exploit Biotechnology' Concerns Suzuki

By Angela Hall
Saskatchewan News Network
April 26, 2005

REGINA -- High-profile scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki gave a boost Monday to Saskatchewan organic farmers taking two multinational companies to court over genetically modified organisms.

Suzuki, speaking before delivering a benefit lecture in Regina on Monday evening, also raised his concerns over what he called the "rush to exploit biotechnology" with no idea of the long-term consequences.

"I'm a geneticist so I'm very excited by what's going on in terms of genetic engineering. I think we're seeing abilities now that I never dreamed I would live to see in my lifetime," Suzuki told reporters at the Regina International Airport.

"What bothers me is we have governments that are supposed to be looking out for our health, for the safety of our environment, and they're acting like cheerleaders for this technology, which . . . is in its infancy and we have no idea what the technology is going to do."

Suzuki said he wanted to help raise money for the Saskatchewan farmers' bid to launch a class action lawsuit against Monsanto and Bayer Crop Science.

"What organic farmers have said is genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) represent a kind of technology we do not want to incorporate into our food growing and I support that," Suzuki said.

The farmers, who have formed the Organic Agriculture Protection Fund (OAPF), were in a Saskatoon courtroom last November to try and have their case certified as a class action. The judge has yet to release a decision.

They ultimately want the court to rule on whether the companies are liable for farmers' losses due to GMO contamination of certified organic canola crops and farms.

The OAPF says the case could set a precedent establishing the liability of companies for the spread of GMOs.

Suzuki said he thinks the technology is too young to tout "so-called benefits" for agriculture, and it is also an experiment in food safety.

"Anyone that says, 'Oh, we know that this is perfectly safe,' I say is either unbelievably stupid or deliberately lying. The reality is we don't know. The experiments simply haven't been done and we now have become the guinea pigs."

Suzuki said that what is being done is "not just a logical extension of classical breeding" and the kind of agriculture that's been practised for years.

"There may be benefits down the line, but this is a revolutionary technology," he said.

Monsanto has called the farmers' lawsuit a platform for advancing the anti-GMO position of various groups in a public arena.

© The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2005


Ventria Won't Try to Grow Modified Rice in Missouri This Year

By Sam Hananel, AP
April 29, 2005

WASHINGTON - Ventria Bioscience is giving up plans to grow genetically modified rice in Missouri this year, saying the company can't get a permit from federal regulators in time for the growing season.

Ventria has been trying to gain approval to grow about 200 acres of genetically engineered rice to produce human proteins that could be used in drugs. Plans to grow the rice in southeast Missouri were scuttled this month after Anheuser-Busch Cos. threatened to boycott the state's rice crop over concerns the modified rice could contaminate edible rice grown nearby.

Ventria agreed April 15 to find a site at least 120 miles from commercial growing areas and Anheuser-Busch dropped its boycott threat.

However, Ventria hasn't yet filed its revised request for a permit and getting one from the Agriculture Department takes at least 30 days. Ventria must plant rice by May 20 to have enough time for the 155-day growing cycle.

"My expectation is that the USDA's regulatory process doesn't have enough flexibility to accommodate our May 20 date," Deeter said in a telephone interview.

He said the company was still considering several locations in the northwest and northeast parts of the state. Ventria plans to grow regular rice in Missouri this year to develop plant varieties for future use, he said.

"We're very excited about our future in Missouri," Deeter said.

Ventria wants to grow rice enhanced with synthetic human genes to produce the proteins lactoferrin and lysozyme, which it would harvest and refine for use in medicines to fight diarrhea and dehydration.

In November, Northwest Missouri State University and Ventria agreed to make the company the anchor of a proposed Center of Excellence for plant-made pharmaceuticals on the university's campus in Maryville. Ventria plans to move its headquarters to Missouri.

Last week, Gov. Matt Blunt called Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to find out if the agency could expedite Ventria's permit request.

But Karen Eggert, a spokeswoman for the department that oversees permits, said the agency has no system for placing permit requests on a fast track.

"Each permit has to go through a process and we wouldn't make exceptions to move someone through more quickly or skip steps or anything like that," Eggert said Thursday.

Several environmental groups sent a letter to Johanns on Thursday urging him not to be pressured into rushing any new permit process.

"Fast tracking a decision is unacceptable in light of the risks and would certainly undermine USDA's credibility, both here and abroad," said Joe Mendelson, legal director of the watchdog group Center for Food Safety.

Environmental groups, food companies and farmers oppose Ventria's efforts to grow modified rice in the state, arguing that the rice could cross-pollinate with other food crops, introducing the foreign genes into the regular food chain.

Bill Freese, a spokesman for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said he considered Ventria's decision a victory for opponents of genetically engineered rice. "There's all this talk about a compromise, but look what's happened," Freese said. "The bottom line is: It's not happening in Missouri."

Meanwhile, Ventria filed new permit applications Thursday with the USDA to grow genetically engineered rice on 70 acres in eastern North Carolina. The company already has a permit to grow its rice on five acres in that state.

Deeter also said his company plans to grow genetically modified rice in South America and Puerto Rico this year to make up for its inability to grow in Missouri.


The Shape Of Forests To Come?

By Karen Charman
May/June 2005

At the turn of the last century, nearly one out of every four trees in the eastern deciduous forests of the United States was an American chestnut. Averaging 30 meters tall and 2 meters wide, these majestic beauties ranged from Maine down through the Appalachian mountains and west to Michigan. The fast-growing and naturally rot-resistant chestnut was an important part of early American life, its timber widely used for log cabins, posts and railroad ties, and its abundant nut crop sustaining wildlife as well as livestock.

But within 40 years, a fungal blight had spread throughout the tree's range, felling virtually every chestnut it touched - some 3.5 billion in all. Brought in by a New York nurseryman on imported Asian chestnut seedlings that were then sent all over the country, the blight moved stealthily from tree to tree, entering through a break in the bark and producing an acid that lowered the tree's pH to toxic levels. Because it attacks new shoots before they can mature, the fungus has reduced the once dominant chestnut to little more than a short-lived shrub.

Ever since chestnut blight was first described at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, scientists have been struggling to defeat it. One of several efforts is going on in the labs of Chuck Maynard and Bill Powcll, directors of New York State's American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project. The two scientists have been working since the late 1980s to genetically engineer a blight-resistant American chestnut. In the fall of 2004, they made a major breakthrough: shoots finally appeared on a handful of blight-resistant chestnut embryos in petri dishes in Maynard's lab. Each of the tiny embryos had a gene from wheat to give it an extra enzyme, oxalate oxidase, which neutralizes the oxalic acid produced by the blight.

Genetically engineering the chestnut (or any other plant) involves not only inserting foreign DNA into its cells but getting the altered, or "transformed," cells to regenerate into a whole plant. This is particularly difficult with chestnut, because unlike species such as poplar, it won't regenerate from leaf tissue. So Maynard and Powell had to work with immature embryo tissue, which is much more difficult. Unlike the natural transformation a tree seed undergoes in the forest, the method plant biotechnologists use - somatic embryogenesis - is a multi-step, highly sterile, precision operation. It demands vigilant monitoring, special chemical solutions, and filtering equipment to prevent contamination of the fledgling embryos and coax them into seedlings that can survive outside the lab.

Barring unforeseen problems, Maynard and Powell hope to have potted plants by this summer, to begin field tests in either the fall or spring, and then to do three years of field trials. If all goes smoothly, they expect to begin deploying genetically modified (GM) American chestnut seedlings to forests in the United States in about four years. Because their goal is to reestablish this tree in its natural range, the two scientists want the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the branch of the U.S. agriculture department thar regulates biotech plants, to allow their transgenic chestnut genes to spread as far and mix with as many chestnut stump sprouts as possible. In fact, they propose that transgenes from any GM free in a forest restoration or disease eradication project be granted such regulatory freedom. (In addition to the chestnut, they've engineered transgenic elm seedlings to fight Dutch elm disease, field tested GM hybrid poplars, and identified other pathogens that affect butternut, white pine, beech, dogwood, and oak.)

But it's impossible to know in advance what kind of impacts transgenic trees will have on wild forests. Maynard and Powell see only a minuscule risk of ecological disruption (if any) with their GM chestnut, since it will contain just three or four foreign genes - the target trait plus a few others needed for the desired transformation. The scientists say greater unknowns exist with the conventionally bred and backcrossed American chestnut, which draws one-sixteenth of its genes from its naturally blight-resistant relative, the Chinese chestnut.

Others, however, aren't convinced that ecological safety depends merely on how many foreign genes a transgenic organism contains, particularly when GM organisms may include genes that didn't evolve together and have never existed in nature. Faith Thompson Campbell, a former advocate with American Lands who is now at The Nature Conservancy, summarized the views of many skeptics in her 2000 report "Genetically Engineered Trees: Questions Without Answers." Here, she warns that GM trees planted near large populations of wild relatives will inevitably spread their genes and alter the genomes (the full complement of an organism's genetic material) of wild trees, including those in national parks, wilderness areas, and other reserves. Since the introduced genes have not evolved with those of wild trees, they could have unpredicted impacts and be unstable over the long lifespan of a tree. Moreover, trees modified to exhibit desired traits such as drought or pest resistance may be able to outcompete native vegetation and spread as weeds in wild forests. As a result, Thompson Campbell argues, changing the genetic codes of some trees could have significant impacts on the ecological functioning of an entire forest.

At the same time, large gaps in scientific understanding of forest ecosystems make it difficult to predict, or even recognize, the wider impact of engineered trees. Two leading proponents ofGM trees reaffirmed this at a biotech tree conference in North Carolina in November 2004. After describing the monumental effort of sequencing the genes in the Nisqually poplar, Jerry Tuskan, a senior scientist at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said, "So I stand here looking at the poplar genome data set and realize we know nothing about how trees grow." Later, on a panel discussing current knowledge gaps, Ron Sederoff, co-director of the Forest Biotechnology Group at North Carolina State University - and one of the most outspoken advocates for GM trees - admitted, "We don't know a few important things.... We don't know what a genome really is.... We don't know how many genes there are, because we don't know what a gene really is. We don't know the extent of something that I call cpigenomics - the non-genetic changes thar occur in genomes that are unstable."

Plant pathologist Doug Gurian-Sherman, a former scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who now works at the International Center for Technology Assessment, explains some of the complexities. He notes that trees, and plants in general, produce an array of compounds whose primary purpose appears to be warding off pathogens and harmful insects. This occurs through a sophisticated system of biochemical and metabolic pathways - functions that aren't fully understood by plant physiologists who specialize in the subject, let alone by the molecular biologists manipulating tree DNA. "As biologists, we have to be a little humble and say 'Look, these are complex interactions,'" Gurian-Sherman says. "Frankly, we can't predict how they're all going to play out."

Like many, Gurian-Sherman sees the appeal of wanting to restore the dominant tree in eastern forests. He says there's even a reasonable chance that Maynard and Powell's transgenic chestnuts won't cause harm in the wild because the target trait - the enzyme that neutralizes oxalic acid - is not as obviously disruptive as, say, inserting an insecticide like Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which could kill large numbers of non-target insects. But the only way to really know GM chestnuts won't cause harm, he notes, is to study in a controlled setting how different forest animals, birds, insects, and microorganisms respond over several generations of the tree's lifetime. Different growth cycles in the tree, environmental and climatic changes, and numerous other factors could trigger unintended impacts over time. Avoiding such mistakes is important because, once released, it won't be possible to recall the GM chestnut trees back to the lab.

So far, however, there's no indication that federal regulators will require the GM chestnut to undergo the kind of full environmental risk assessment Gurian-Sherman is calling for, and he's concerned this will set a dangerous precedent. He also predicts the biotech industry will use the example of the transgenic chestnut to say that all genetically engineered trees are safe. "But different transgenes will have very different impacts, he savs. "It's like doing a crash test with a Volvo that passed with flying colors. That tells you nothing about how a little Kia will perform in the same test."

Gurian-Sherman's suspicions appear well placed. At the North Carolina biotech meeting in November, forest industry veteran Scott Wallinger, who recently retired from paper giant MeadWestvaco, was one of many speakers who acknowledged the public relations value of the blight-resistant GM chestnut: "This pathway can begin to provide the public with a much more personal sense of the value of forest biotechnology and receptivity to other aspects of genetic engineering."

Skinhead Earth

Like their colleagues in agriculture, proponents of forestry biotech use the rationale of looming scarcity and environmental preservation to argue their cause. In a 2000 Foreign Affairs article widely quoted in forestry circles, David Victor and Jesse Ausubel offer two visions for the future. In one, "quaint and inefficient agriculture and forestry" lead to a "Skinhead Earth" scenario, where the planet's forest cover shrinks by 200 million hectares by 2050, and lumberjacks regularly shave 40 percent of what remains. Alternatively, "efficient farmers and foresters" who grow "more food and fiber in ever-smaller areas" herald a "Great Restoration" that adds 200 million hectares of forest by 2050 and requires cutting only 12 percent of the world's woodlands to meet global demand for forest products.

Genetically engineered trees grown in intensively managed plantations, or "fast forests," fit into the latter scenario. Today, forest plantations produce one quarter of the world's industrial wood. Though still a tiny percentage of the Earth's nearly 4 billion hectares of forests, they are expanding rapidly, especially in Asia and South America. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, between 1990 and 2000, plantations increased 51 percent from 124 million hectares to 187 million hectares. At current rates of planting, they are projected to produce one billion cubic meters of wood - half of the world's supply - by 2050.

The American South, the nation's wood basket since the late 1980s, produces 15 percent of the world's pulp and paper products, primarily from 13 million hectares of intensively managed loblolly pine plantations. Timber companies have invested up to $ 1 billion for each of the pulp and paper mills that pump out reams of paper, newsprint, and cardboard, says Conner Bailey, a rural sociologist at Auburn University who studies the timber industry. Yet mounting competition from low-cost pulp and paper producers in places like Indonesia and Brazil is putting these investments at risk, because the mills aren't easily converted to other uses. The industry's solution to safeguarding their profits? Increase efficiency through technological innovation, including by genetically engineering the raw material.

High on the pulp and paper industry's wish-list is a tree with reduced lignin, the cellular glue that holds wood fibers together and gives a tree its structure. Lignin, which accounts for about 30 percent of the dry weight of a tree trunk, is good for lumber, but removing it for papermaking is messy, toxic, and costly. Engineering trees with less lignin could mean significant cost savings for paper manufacturers.

Unresolved issues remain, however. Former MeadWestvaco executive Wallinger points out that in the U.S. South, paper mills buy about one-third of their fiber from private forest owners who typically grow some trees for pulp and others for saw timber. Gene flow from low-lignin transgenics could alter the timber trees, which are about four times as valuable. On the manufacturing side, separate processing lines for the two would have to be set up, requiring yet more capital investment. Meanwhile, studies have linked high lignin content with greater resistance to diseases and pests, suggesting that weakening this trait could make trees more vulnerable to these threats.

Big Stumps Of Wood

Scientists are testing genetically engineered trees with several other traits of interest to forestry companies, including faster growth, tolerance to drought and salty environments, herbicide resistance, insect resistance (primarily Bt), and altered flowering. More complicated - and more financially risky - traits include straighter-grained and knotless pines, and cold-tolerant eucalyptus trees for plantations in the United States and other places too cold for eucalypts. One of the stranger visions comes from University of Washington molecular biologist Toby Bradshaw, a leading proponent of transgenic trees, who told Science in 2002 that trees could one day be "rearchitected" to be, basically, big stumps of wood - "short, wide, almost branchless organisms without extensive root systems" that could pack super-intensive tree plantations.

Experience with GM crops - from Bt corn to Roundup Ready canola - has proven that transgenes spread widely in the environment. But key differences between annual agricultural crops and forest trees make the risks of transgenic contamination in forests even greater. Because oft the size ot trees, the amount of seeds and pollen they produce, and the updrafts that occur in forests and tree plantations, the scale of gene flow among trees is "unprecedented" compared to food crops, says Claire Williams, a forest geneticist at Duke University. And while most annual agricultural crops cannot survive outside the comparatively simple ecosystem of a farm field, long-lived trees are designed to exist in complex, but poorly understood, wild environments.

Tom Whitham, an ecologist at Northern Arizona University, works with other scientists to document how certain genetic traits affect relationships between trees, understory plants, insects, animals, and micro-organisms. His research shows that genes in individual organisms and populations have "extended phenotypes" - identifiable effects on an ecosystem beyond the organism. Extended phenotypes are particularly important when they occur in dominant plants and keystone species like trees, he says, because they can affect as many as a thousand other species. In addition, traits that may be beneficial under one set of circumstances can become problematic under another. For example, in ongoing research of pinyon pine ecology, Whitman's team discovered that some of the trees are naturally resistant to the stem-boring moth, an insect that eats away at the woody stems. In the first 19 years of their study, the insect-resistant trees did much better. But in a record drought in the twentieth year, about 70 percent of the insect-resistant trees died, while 80 percent of the non-resistant trees survived. "That was a real shock," he says.

In a survey of hundreds of published studies, Whitham found that the more factors a study considered, the greater the likelihood of observing such "ecosystem reversals." He says this is important because changes (including those likely to be induced by genetic engineering) that ignore interactions over time, space, and numbers of species run a high risk of having the opposite effect from what was intended.

Tree biotechnologists acknowledge that GM trees could threaten native forests. But they believe they can solve the problem by making the seeds and pollen sterile, so they cannot reproduce and spread transgenic traits. Yet there is no guarantee a transgenic tree will remain sterile throughout its life. Moreover, many trees, like the American chestnut, also reproduce by sending suckers up from their roots or by re-growing from broken twigs.

Future Prospects

So far, GM trees have not been released commercially, except in China, where more than one million Bt poplars are reported to have been planted nationwide. The reforestation is part of the Chinese government's plan to cover 44 million hectares with trees by 2012 to prevent flooding, droughts, and the spread of deserts. Meanwhile, hundreds of field trials have taken place in the open environment - mostly in the United States, but also in Canada, Europe, New Zealand, Japan, and a handful of other countries - though researchers in most places are currently required to cut down any GM trees before they flower.

Despite their enthusiasm, tree biotechnologists face some challenges before transgenic trees march across the American landscape. The large investments required over long periods are a tough sell in a world where time is money. (Forestry veteran Scott Wallingcr laments that the first biotech tree products from 20 years ago are still being tested.) Changing trends in timberland ownership are adding further uncertainty. Investment companies are buying up large tracts of land from forestry corporations, and their commitment to the technology, or even how long they'll own the land, is unknown. After witnessing public resistance to agricultural biotech, GM tree proponents are also very concerned about how the public will react to their plans.

Nevertheless, GM forestry is likely to get a substantial boost from a decision in December 2003 by parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international treaty aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Under the convention's Kyoto Protocol, which sets specific targets for these reductions and entered into force this February, countries will be allowed to offset their carbon emissions by planting tracts of GM trees, which would absorb and store atmospheric carbon. According to Heidi Bachram of the Transnational Institute, millions of dollars in public subsidies are being used as incentives to establish such plantations, despite the questionable benefit of establishing them in lieu of forcing polluters to reduce their emissions up front. Moreover, in order to keep the stored carbon from entering the atmosphere, the plantations would have to be prevented from burning, being destroyed by pests or diseases, or being cut down.

Meanwhile, the USDA's APHIS, which oversees field tests and grants permits for the unrestricted commercial release of transgenic plants, is revamping its biotech regulations. In 2003, a National Academy of Sciences study faulted the agency lor not having the resources, staff, or expertise to adequately assess the environmental impact ofGM releases, especially as the technology progresses. According to Lee Handley, who works for the Risk Assessment Branch of APHIS's Biotechnology Regulatory Services, the agency is considering scrapping the current system of notifications and permits in favor of a new multi-tiered system, where the regulations for a particular GM plant (including both trees and crops) would depend on the environmental risk the agency thought it posed. For example, insect resistant trees might be required to be sterile, while GM trees with other traits might not. APHIS is also considering adding a category of "conditional release" that would require additional data to be collected on a given planting over time.

The proposed rules are expected sometime in 2005, and final regulations will come out following the agency's review of comments. Handley, a forest industry veteran, has strongly urged industry members to make their voices heard by participating in the public comment period. At the North Carolina conference he warned participants that GM trees "are definitely on the radar screen" of environmental groups, which are "very well organized and sophisticated" - which suggests just how nervous biotech tree proponents are, since most mainstream environmental groups have not addressed this issue, and very few people know genetically engineered trees even exist.

In their Foreign Affairs piece, David Victor and Jesse Ausubel remind us that "forests matter": they host much of the planet's biodiversity, protect watersheds and provide clean drinking water, and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. "Forests count - not just for their ecological and industrial services but also for the sake of order and beauty," they write. A key question as we consider genetically engineered forests is what to do to preserve wild forests, and who gets to decide.

Karen Charman is an independent investigative journalist specializing in environmental issues. She is also the managing editor of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism.

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