"Fixing" Trees With Genetic Engineering

GE trees – touted as a high-tech fix for ecosystem and climate woes – are poised to create a treadmill of profitable problems

by Lucy Sharratt

The promise of a simple technological fix is compelling. Whether it is world hunger or climate change, companies have promised that genetic engineering (GE), also called genetic modification (GM), can come to the rescue. Successful or not, this “rescue” comes at price.

The technofix accepts destruction

Forests are being destroyed, but we can replace them with genetically engineered trees. Oceans are overfished and river systems are degraded, but we can grow genetically engineered fast-growing salmon in tanks on land. Flavours such as vanilla can now be made in a vat using synthetic biology.

Advances in genetic engineering promise to replicate some of the “ecosystem services” that we rely on for wood and food, for example, and eliminate our need for functioning ecosystems. Rather than saving ecosystems, the implication is that we can engineer our survival despite ecological crises.

“Fixing” trees with GE

The development of genetically engineered forest trees persists under the cover of the techno-fix. Just as GM crops were promised as a solution to world hunger, GM trees are promised as a solution to the biodiversity and climate crises. A new report from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network and The STOP GE Trees Campaign concludes that such claims are hollow, and profoundly dangerous.

US researchers are asking for approval in the US – and could soon ask in Canada – to release a GM blight-tolerant American chestnut tree into the wild, to “restore” this endangered species. If allowed, its release would be a large-scale experiment, with little or no ability to track or reverse its spread. The ability of this GM tree to function as intended, and its impacts on forest ecosystems, will only be known after decades, centuries, or millennia, if at all. Despite the risks, this project is providing positive public relations for the idea of GM trees, exploiting nostalgia for the American chestnut. In fact, biotechnology researchers have discussed its role a “test tree” for public acceptance.

Rather than saving ecosystems, the implication is that we can engineer our survival despite ecological crises.

The mere promise of a technofix can be profitable. The small US venture capital company Living Carbon says it is altering the photosynthesis of trees to increase growth and thereby capture more carbon. The company has a vision of “planting forests of Living Carbon trees.” Though it has no commercial GM tree, or even a proof of concept, the company has raised $15-million USD from investors. Living Carbon is already selling uncertified carbon credits.

Both of these GM projects are generating a lot of positive media attention. The story of new technologies and products that could solve our problems is attractive. The full story is underreported.

Under cover of the technofix

Most GE tree research is focused on increasing the productivity of plantation trees – eucalyptus, pine and poplar – for industrial purposes, such as pulp, paper, and timber as well as using trees for “bioenergy” – to produce biomass (wood pellets, for example) to burn for electricity and to genetically engineer trees so that they can be more easily and cheaply turned into liquid “cellulosic biofuel.”

Predictably, the release of GM trees actually starts with the two GM traits that dominate GM crop production globally: insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. China planted an insect-resistant GM poplar tree in 2002, and a GM herbicide-tolerant eucalyptus in Brazil may soon be the next GM plantation tree.

On November 16, 2021, Brazil approved the planting of a GM eucalyptus tree that is genetically engineered to survive spraying with the herbicide glyphosate. Use of this GM tree will likely result in increased glyphosate use on eucalyptus plantations. It may also encourage aerial spraying of new plantations where direct spraying of plants on the ground is the current norm. This GE tree was developed by the Brazilian pulp and paper company Suzano and it follows a 2015 approval in Brazil of Suzano’s GE fast-growing eucalyptus tree. Neither have yet been commercially released.

Report: The Global Status of GE TreesOne tech, fix-all

If genetic engineering is accepted as a solution to one problem, why not all problems? The future offers more and more powerful applications.

The new gene editing technique of CRISPR is facilitating experimentation with “gene drives,” where GMOs are being designed to push new genes through entire populations of a species. The mechanism ensures that the new genes will be inherited by all offspring in subsequent generations (as opposed to an expected half of the offspring in normal inheritance). Thus, gene drives are designed to alter the genetic make-up of an entire wild population, or to eradicate a population or species. For example, the release of gene drive organisms is proposed to eradicate invasive species and eliminate populations of insects, like certain mosquitoes, that carry disease.

Once released into the wild, the GMOs cannot be recalled, and the changes they create in the genetic make-up of target populations are likely irreversible.

A treadmill of profitable problems

Even if a technofix actually provides a solution, it is also likely to create new problems. This is foreseeable with genetic engineering in particular because most of the products are living, self-replicating organisms. Multiple GM technofixes will likely create a multitude of new problems. For companies producing GMOs, the failure of the technofix is a market opportunity where each new problem created will require a new product.

Fix or not, the public is not given a voice. There is no technology assessment that allows people to weigh the risks and benefits. The Canadian government approves GMOs based only on safety questions. Any “non-scientific” considerations such as social worth or cultural impacts are irrelevant in current regulation. Further, the federal government is now proposing to actually remove government safety assessment from many new GMOs, leaving the question of how GM technofixes will shape our world to the very companies that want to bring these products to market.

 


Lucy Sharratt is Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), a project of MakeWay.

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