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August 2007 Updates

Super Trees: The Latest in Genetic Engineering

By Marc Gunther
Fortune Magazine
August 1 2007

A South Carolina biotech firm re-engineers trees to make them grow faster and cleaner

NEW YORK -- In 1913, the New Jersey poet and critic Joyce Kilmer wrote "Trees," a poem which concludes with this simple rhyme:

"Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree."

It may be that only God can make a tree. But only man, and modern biotechnology, can make super trees - trees that have been genetically engineered to grow faster, produce more wood on less land, thrive in unfamiliar climates and be processed more easily into wood or paper once they are cut down.

Super trees are the business of ArborGen, a South Carolina company that says improving the genetic makeup of purpose-grown trees - that is, trees grown for paper, wood or biofuels - will help conserve "native forests in all their diversity and complexity for future generations."

Yes, ArborGen, like so many companies today, is painting itself green - although it has run into a buzzsaw of criticism from the likes of the Sierra Club.

"Genetically engineered trees pose unpredictable and unnecessary threats to the environment, biodiversity and human health," says the Stop GE Trees Campaign, an alliance of environmental groups which is based in the village of Hinesburg, Vermont.

We'll hear from the, er, tree-huggers, in a minute but first a bit about ArborGen. Formed in 2000, ArborGen is a joint venture of three forest products companies, International Paper (Charts, Fortune 500), MeadWestvaco (Charts, Fortune 500) and New Zealand-based Rubicon.

Last year, the company began selling its first commercial product, Loblolly pine seedlings that have been bred to produce 30 to 40 percent more lumber than the native, unimproved pine. They are not genetically engineered but produced through natural selection and then cloned. Top-performing trees, selected for straightness, fewer branches or knots or faster growth are mass produced into seedlings for customers.

ArborGen is also working on a freeze-tolerant Eucalyptus, a reduced-lignin Eucalyptus and faster-growing Aspen. Reducing lignin, a chemical compound which is removed from pulp before it is made into paper, means using fewer chemicals and less energy during processing.

All this, says ArborGen CEO Barbara Wells, means that land can be used more efficiently, saving native forests. "Our purpose is more wood, less land," says Wells, who has a PhD in agronomy and 18 years of experience at Monsanto, a leading biotech company.

The federal government's push for biofuels is a boost to Arborgen. The freeze-tolerant, fast-growing Eucalyptus, for example, could become a source for the production of ethanol, which burns cleaner than gasoline and reduces the U.S.'s dependence on foreign oil. Some of the trees grow 20-25 feet per year, and produce high quality fiber. "It is truly a biomass machine," Wells says.

ArborGen also belongs to a group of researchers, companies and universities that received a $125 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for a bioenergy research center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, with the goal of developing new ways to produce biofuels.

Other companies and scientists also want to improve trees. After a virus wiped out a wide swath of Hawaii's papaya industry in the 1990s, trees engineered to resist the virus helped restore the business. Synthetic Genomics, a Maryland firm founded by J. Craig Venter (of human genome project fame), recently announced a deal with a Malaysian palm oil plantation company to analyze the genome of the palm tree that produces oil. Forest scientists at Oregon State University have used genetic engineering to manipulate the height of poplar trees, opening the door to new products for the nursery industry.

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Rainforest Action Network and Forest Ethics, don't like any of this. They argue, among other things, that pollen from the genetically modified trees could escape into the wild and wreak havoc with forest ecosystems.

"We barely understand how forest ecosystems work, anyway," says Anne Petermann of Stop GE Trees and the Global Justice Ecology program. "When you throw a wildcard in there, like a genetically engineered tree, who knows how far those impacts are going to ripple?"

She also says that tree plantations, whether engineered or not, usually displace agricultural land, native forests or grasslands, all of which are better for the earth and for local communities.

So far, the federal government has ignored the critics and granted ArborGen permission to do more than 100 field trials of genetically engineered - that is, new and improved - trees.


Frankenforests: GE Trees Threaten Ecosystem Collapse

By Dara Colwell
August 2, 2007

In China, over a million poplar trees have been planted since 2002 to combat deforestation. But the move has not been widely applauded by everyone. The poplars, which are genetically engineered, are China's first foray into the world of transgenic forestry -- or "frankenforests" -- and other countries are not far behind.

As the biotech industry continues to lay the groundwork for genetically engineered crops -- poorly tested, widely debated and yet plugged as a technological wonder -- a potentially greater threat to biodiversity has begun to emerge. Pushed forward by biotech and the multibillion-dollar timber industry, genetically engineered trees are the latest invention.

"The industry has tried very hard to keep it quiet, or tout the technology as benign and beneficial to the environment," says Anne Petermann, co-founder of the Global Justice Ecology Project, a nonprofit established to advance global justice through ecological awareness. "The technology is moving forward very quickly, outpacing regulations. There are no controls in place to properly address or assess the risks -- which are major."

GE trees are planted in monoculture forests, which look more like plantations, and pose serious risks to the ecosystem. Trees live decades or centuries longer than plants, and their seeds can travel hundreds of miles, increasing the likelihood of gene contamination to wild species. The technology was created to optimize the manufacturing process, but environmentalists worry that it will open an ecological Pandora's Box and threaten the health of the forests we depend on for survival.

The world is a test lab

GE forestry research is already alarmingly prevalent across the globe. The United States leads the world in research projects, with 150 tree test plots -- two-thirds of the world's known research areas -- and they are joined by Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Despite the prevelance of the practice, GE forestry has remained somewhat obscured by GE crops, which have raised more immediate health concerns, as forestry "doesn't seem to affect the daily shopping trip -- or at least, less visibly," according to Larry Lohmann, a researcher with U.K.-based Corner House, a nonprofit that fights for social and environmental justice.

"But the problems transgenic trees pose are just as severe. Whether it's endangering wild species or pollen drift, the fact is we're in danger of setting off a chain of events that's irreversible. We don't know what we're messing with," he says.

From the perspective of the timber industry, driven by commercial pressure and deforestation to "build" its own resources, the case for GE trees is clear-cut. Uniform, faster-growing species produce more paper or lumber in a shorter period of time, driving down costs. Faster-growing trees also produce greater biomass, which can potentially be converted into a second-generation biofuel -- an important financial incentive in the current gold rush for agrofuels. Biomass furthermore acts as a carbon sink, sucking carbon dioxide emissions from the air, which the industry claims is an environmental plus, though native forests actually absorb more. The industry's outlook is simple: The technology poses minimal risk with maximum return.

"The industry is looking for a way to make more money, damn the consequences. What's driving this is not environmental concern, but mass production -- you can't say that's environmentally friendly," says Lohmann.

Concerns over the technology's long-term impact are serious. "The forests are already under tremendous pressure from climate change and human interaction," says Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, co-founder of the London-based nonprofit science watchdog Eco-Nexus. Steinbrecher, also co-author of "Hungry Corporations: Transnational Biotech Companies Colonize the Food Chain," has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics.

"Compared to crops that have been cultivated for thousands of years, trees are 'wild.' If a GE trait enters a forest species, the implications could be absolutely horrendous. We could see the ecological system weaken and collapse. Without the forests, we're sunk."

Steinbrecher's fears resonate deeply with environmentalists. Given genetic science's infancy, which has been plagued repeatedly by controversy, biotech -- with its thrust towards profit -- has continued to promote its art as a magic bullet solution. But there's always the risk of misfire. And now that trees have been loaded into the barrel, environmentalists, those involved in forestry, indigenous peoples and scientists have worked to raise the alarm.

"Forests are crucial to us," says Alexander Evans, research director at the Forest Guild, which promotes responsible forestry in America, noting how they are one of the most valuable and little-understood ecosystems in the world. "When it comes to GE, the potential risks are not well understood, so why go into it? We're not into the quick-return model -- there are too many hidden costs. There's simply no reason to take the risk."

The risks, in fact, are numerous. Genetically modified trees have been engineered to exhibit unnatural traits such as herbicide tolerance, insecticide production, reduced lignin content, the substance that makes trees strong but must be removed to make paper, and finally, sterility.

Many of these qualities have already proved problematic. For example, herbicide-resistant trees are meant to reduce the quantity of herbicides applied to tree plantations, yet experience shows that farmers who converted to herbicide-resistant, genetically modified crops used just as much herbicide as their counterparts, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Or take sterility, also known as terminator technology and by far the most controversial. In GE crops, this strategy was used to prevent farmers from saving and replanting seeds, thus compelling them to buy from dealers -- a highly lucrative move for the multinational/agrochemical seed industry. With trees, however, the technology is meant to act as a biosafety control to prevent contamination as trees, large organisms with a long life span, have enormous potential for gene flow.

So far, engineering persistent sterility has been impossible. But its success would be worse, creating sterile trees that would produce no seeds, pollen, fruit or flowers, sources of food for thousands of species of birds, insects and animals. Instead, sterile trees would comprise forests akin to silent green desserts, devoid of life.

"From a scientific perspective, we haven't got a clue what the response (in GE trees) will be. There's real arrogance in saying that we do," says Steinbrecher. "Genome scrambling isn't like moving Lego blocks. It's introducing a number of mutations into the plant's DNA, and the side effects are not something we can predict."

The U.S. approves GE trees

Back in the States, however, major transgenic tree projects are in the works. On July 16, APHIS (Animal Plant Health Inspection Service), a subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approved a request by forestry giant ArborGen to let a field of genetically modified eucalyptus trees flower and produce seeds -- a monumental move that has alarmed environmentalists worried about GE trees interbreeding with wild ones.

"The USDA has basically been rubber-stamping things without doing a thorough environmental assessment," says Petermann of the Global Justice Ecology Project, critical of the USDA's decision to give the green light to ArboGen, a $60 million venture between International Paper, the world' largest forest and paper company, and Westvaco, another huge U.S. multinational forest products company. "Trees live for decades, so to do a thorough study, you have to study them for decades," she says.

Not that USDA approval counts for much these days. The pro-GE department has strong ties to biotech, going so far as to sue other nations before the World Trade Organization over bans on genetically engineered crops grown in the United States. Such political cronyism these days is rampant, leaving the fox guarding the henhouse.

Arbogen has invited serious criticism on several fronts: In its permit application, the company classified certain genes as confidential business information, meaning even the USDA could not assess their impact; its field trial site in Alabama is prone to severe storms that could blow eucalyptus seeds much farther than the mere 100 meters the USDA anticipated.

And there's also the choice of trees. Eucalyptus, a fast-growing, high-yield hardwood, is notorious for colonizing native ecosystems. The species has become so successful in California, it's now listed as a plant pest by the state's Invasive Plant Council. The tree additionally depletes ground water, exacerbating drought conditions, and is extremely flammable, potentially causing massive wildfires, an ongoing issue for the American South, where ArboGen is headquartered.

By far, the largest threat ArboGen poses, however, is gene drift. Trees are perennial plants that can spread seeds and pollen for hundreds of miles, or even further. According to new research from Duke University's Center on Global Change, which has studied pollen from GE conifer trees, the pollen from transgenic pines can spread more than a thousand miles, leading to "substantial ... subsequent colonization."

Gene drift in agricultural crops has already occurred rapidly. Take, for example, StarLink Maize, a GM variety approved only for animal feed, which entered the human food chain in the United States, Canada, Egypt, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Japan and South Korea.

With trees, contamination is more worrying because they are long-living, complex organisms that are key to the planet's ecosystem. China's Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science has already reported contamination of native poplars -- what's to stop this from spreading elsewhere?

"There's no way to experiment safely in the open with this technology. Companies say it's very safe and that they have testing protocols, but it's an illusion to think, once contamination starts happening, that it's somehow going to be regulated," says Lohmann. "That depends on the assumption that you know what could go wrong."

Steinbrecher, too, finds the promise of halting GE contamination and thus interbreeding with wild trees a "scientifically meaningless argument that's unsatisfactory and unconvincing."

"You cannot design a biological system that's 100 percent fool-proof," she says. Data backs her up. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), even at a 95 percent success rate, it is nearly impossible to control gene flow through pollen and seed dispersal.

"Contamination is inevitable and irreversible," says Petermann. "Regulations need to be put in place now to properly address and assess the risk from these trees because the industry is getting them out there without public debate. Once it's too late, it really is too late."

Industry's spin

To pacify these concerns, projects such as the European Union-funded Transcontainer scheme have been created. A three-year, 5.38 million Euro research project, Transcontainer is aimed at developing technology to allow the coexistence of GE and non-GE crops, as well as GE trees, through technology that reverses sterility -- what critics refer to as zombie seeds. In other words, seed fertility can be recovered, possibly with a chemical application, which critics fear would create a new monopoly for the seed industry.

"This is not a viable solution. No molecular technology exists for biocontainment -- and if it doesn't prevent 100 percent gene flow, it's not a workable option," says Hope Shand, research director of ETC Group, an organization that supports socially responsible technology. "Why should taxpayers, farmers and society be asked to accept the burden of defective technology and then accept an even riskier technology to fix it? You really have to look at it in this light. This technology is not safe. It shouldn't be used."

But according to Piet Schenkelaars, a Dutch biotech consultant for the Transcontainer project, research is still in its infancy. Schenkelaars agrees the technology isn't failsafe at the moment -- that's exactly why research is being conducted. "In a couple of years, we can deploy the technology for more commercial purposes if it works as it should -- but that's something we don't know at the moment," he says.

Asked why, in the face of great public rejection of GE crops, Europeans were being asked to support similar research, Schenkelaars responded that public opposition was questionable. "Whether people reject GE is doubtful. Surveys on public attitudes within Europe show different levels of acceptance," he says.

However, substantial public resistance to genetically modified crops does exist. In Europe, the most recent Eurobarometer, a survey conducted since 1991, indicated that most Europeans remained skeptical of genetically modified crops, expressing moral objections about potential risks.

Or closer to home, take Quebec. A survey conducted for Quebec Science found that more than 75 percent of the province's residents would rather pay extra for organic food than buy GM foods at lower prices. And in America, studies by the International Food Information Council and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found nearly an identical lack of awareness of GM foods among consumers. But when respondents were told how pervasive GM foods are in the United States, they were outraged.

Says Schenkelaars, "I think we should develop our options as much as possible and keep our minds open. Indeed, this technology is very complex. We need to proceed with caution."

On that most critics would agree but find the very existence of Schenkelaars, a public relations consultant fronting questions for biotech, troubling.

"This is boiling down to a PR battle. There are two things research has shown are the industry's biggest concerns: contamination and public opinion," says Orin Langelle, co-founder of Global Justice Ecology Project. "The industry is going to pull out their wallets to convince the public this is good, but it's our job to broaden the debate. We don't have money for big ad campaigns, but I guarantee the other side does."

One thing that's missing in the current dialogue is discussion of natural alternatives, such as hemp. Hemp does not need pesticides or herbicides and yields three to four times more usable fiber per hectare per year than forests. But growing hemp remains illegal in the United States, where the DEA has taken a hard line on the crop as a result of the war against its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, even though hemp contains only trace amounts of THC. In terms of biofuels, hemp is capable of producing 10 tons of biomass per acre in four months --10 times more methanol than corn, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

Clearly, as this issue garners wider attention, alternatives should be sought and public debate welcomed. Says Shand, "Research continues to be done on something that has been repeatedly rejected by the public, so why not put that money into researching something more sustainable? We keep hearing the argument that technology, like sterility in trees, is safe, but safe for whom? Is it safe for companies introducing huge monoculture plantations, or is it safe for the trees? You have to look at the larger impact."

Dara Colwell is a freelance writer based in Amsterdam.


Organic Farmers Seek Supreme Court Hearing

Organic Agriculture Protection Fund
Canada Press Release
August 1, 2007

Today papers were filed with the Supreme Court of Canada by the Saskatchewan organic farmers seeking leave to appeal the May 2, 2007 Saskatchewan Appeal Court decision which denied them class action status in their GMO liability suit against Monsanto Canada and Bayer CropScience.

Applicants Larry Hoffman and Dale Beaudoin are seeking compensation for the loss of canola as a certified organic crop due to the extensive contamination of canola seed and cross-pollination by GMO varieties belonging to Monsanto Canada and Bayer CropScience. They are also seeking compensation for the losses due to contamination of other organic crops due to the spread of GMO canola volunteers into organic fields. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the appeal, and it is successful, the case will be certified as a Class Action under SaskatchewanÇ ¶-s Class Actions Act, allowing the farmers to go to trial on these issues.

'Sometimes when you're wanting to be heard, or want to get action with people, you don't get anywhere until you go to the boss or the owner,' says Dale Beaudoin. 'By putting forth our application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court we are now going to the top.' Commenting on the Saskatchewan Appeal CourtÇ ¶-s decision, Larry Hoffman stated 'The bar was set too high for class actions in Saskatchewan. We have to appeal to the Supreme Court because the lower court decisions as they stand make it futile for the common person to make a claim.' In his Memorandum of Argument, Council Terry Zakreski states: This case seeks to ask whether biotechnology companies incur responsibility when their patented genetically modified seed, pollen and plants infiltrate farmland, causing harm. While Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser confirmed that these companies have significant exclusive rights to GMO seed and plants -- the question remains whether they have any corresponding duties.

The case involves legal questions of significant importance to the public, namely liability and rights associated with the development, marketing, sale and dispersal of GMOs, as well as public access to justice through class certification. The prevalence of open-pollinating GM crops on the landscape is a matter of significant environmental and public interest. These issues transcend provincial or territorial boundaries, as organic farmers in Saskatchewan can no longer grow and sell certified organic canola as a crop.

Dale Beaudoin concludes, 'Our lawyer, Mr. Zakreski, is one of the most knowledgeable in the world on the subject of GMO crops. We are looking forward with the hope that our application for leave to appeal will be accepted.' Now that the farmers' papers have been filed, the defendants have 30 days to respond. Then the Supreme Court will make its decision as to whether or not leave to appeal will be granted.


Genetically Modified Corn
Next step: Do no harm

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel
August 02, 2007

The sky fell a long time ago for those who feared the introduction of genetically modified crops into Maine. For at least a decade, the state's farmers have grown Roundup Ready canola, corn and soybeans as well as LibertyLink corn -- all plants that have been bred through biotechnology to be resistant to herbicides.

Last week, another significant barrier finally fell when the state's Board of Pesticides Control, or BPC, approved the use of Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, corn. That approval was hotly contested by organic farming advocates and came a decade after the first effort by biotechnology companies to gain approval of the corn's use in the state. (A small experiment in growing Bt potatoes here in the last decade failed when the market for them didn't materialize.)

Bt corn is grown as feed for animals and contains normally soil-borne bacteria that kill insects that can decimate a corn crop; insects try to eat the corn and die, instead. Conventional farmers argued that growing it could cut their pesticide use and costs, increase yields and thus give them a competitive edge at a time when farming in Maine is more challenged than ever.

Organic farmers have maintained for years that use of Bt corn would lead to the evolution of pesticide-resistant insects. Equally worrisome was the issue of so-called "genetic drift" -- unlike the earlier experiment with Bt potatoes, which self-pollinate, one corn plant pollinates another. And that raises the specter of Bt corn pollinating organic and non-Bt corn -- a kind of genetic trespass and pollution that scared organic growers who make a living on the certified purity of their crops.

The state needs to do everything it can to help both agricultural sectors, conventional and organic, thrive. The use of Bt corn may well help conventional farmers but it can also harm a robust and growing segment of our state's farming community, organic growers. Conflicts between adjacent farms that grow both kinds of corn are bound to happen; those conflicts could easily escalate into lawsuits. Farmers are more likely to be able to handle a plague of grasshoppers than a plague of lawyers, and time spent in a courtroom is time not spent in the field.

That elevates the importance of ensuring that proper rules are in place to control the interactions between Bt corn crops and organic crops and that rules regarding the safe and ecologically appropriate management of the corn are promulgated and enforced.

The Board of Pesticides Control should ensure that all farmers using the corn are trained in its safe management. Buffer zones will need to be established between the crop and adjacent farms growing organic corn; that will likely entail direct discussions between farmers that should be facilitated and overseen by the board. Federal requirements that 20 percent of a farm's acreage be planted to conventional corn as a "refuge" for insects must be followed. Compliance with these rules will require that farmers file annual reports.

All this will necessitate strong enforcement and oversight by the board, which will be a challenge, given that it's part of an underfunded and understaffed state Department of Agriculture. Yet if there's one place where that kind of state oversight is positively essential, it's in the aftermath of approval for a crop that's never been grown in this state before and whose potential, and perils, are equally great.


Mystery Fungus Hits Bt Cotton

The Deccan Chronicle
August 9, 2007

Hyderabad, Aug. 8: A new fungal pest is causing havoc in agricultural fields in Warangal and other cotton growing districts in the State, upsetting the economy of farmers. The root rot disease, which was rarely noticed earlier in the State, has now affected 40 per cent of Bt cotton, tomato and chilli crops in Warangal district alone. Agriculture scientists attribute the spread of root rot to the favourable conditions provided by Bt cotton crop.

"The fungus has been lying low for long. With the introduction of the Bt cotton in the State, the fungus got a boost and is spreading fast. The Bt cotton is susceptible to the root rot. From Bt cotton, the disease has spread to crops like tomato and chilli," says senior farm scientist Dr Abdul Qayyum. The fungus spreads fast from one crop to another as it easily gets attached to agricultural implements like ploughs. When a plough used in an infested field is used in a healthy field, the latter too gets infected.

"There have been instances of farmers burning the whole crop to prevent the spread of the root rot disease to neighbouring fields. Now that the root rot has spread to tomato and chilli, there's every likelihood of it spreading to horticultural crops and vegetable fields too," points out agriculture scientist Kiran Sakkhari. The fungus is capable of eating away roots damaging the root system. Only the tap root is left intact while the branches and capillaries are eaten away. This leaves the plant incapable of sucking water from the ground and it drops dead.

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