The global threat of genetically engineered (GE) trees is closer than ever. Ironically, it could be the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) — the organization that describes itself as “the original pioneers of forest certification” and claims to “promote the responsible management of the world’s forests” — that may open the door to the commercialization of GE trees.
The Forest Stewardship Council has prohibited the use of genetically engineered trees in FSC-certified operations and products since 1995. The current prohibition has served as a block on GE tree commercial pursuit globally and has therefore been the target of a pressure campaign from biotechnology tree researchers. Now FSC is taking concrete steps towards removing its GE tree prohibition – they will be reviewing it at the upcoming FSC General Assembly in Bali, October 9-14, and have also launched a “genetic engineering learning process” that proposes to directly oversee selected field tests of GE trees.
What’s at stake
Commercial planting of genetically engineered trees would be a large-scale experiment in our environment, with unpredictable and potentially irreversible consequences. Forest ecosystems have a high degree of complexity, which is recognized but still not fully understood. This makes it unlikely that we will be able to understand or predict the potential impacts in the wild of intentionally or unintentionally (through invasiveness and contamination) introducing GE trees.
Unforeseen impacts can arise from the release of trees with new intended genetically engineered traits, as well as with the many possible unintended modifications that can result from the processes of genetic engineering. Unintended effects from genetic engineering could, for example, change the safety or nutritional quality of seeds and nuts; or alter wood rotting qualities which may impact fungal communities and the larval development of some insects. Even intended changes at the DNA level may impact the behaviour of trees in unexpected ways, such as changing stress responses and interactions with other species. Experience with GE crop plants already warns that plantations of GE insect- or disease-resistant trees could shift pest pressures, with impacts on surrounding trees and forests.
The use of GE trees in plantations would put wild forests and forest ecosystems at risk from GE contamination, including invasiveness over time. The contamination risks from GE trees are particularly high because trees are long-lived organisms that produce abundant pollen and seed designed to travel long distances, through wind dispersal and with help from animals. Once GE contamination begins, it cannot be stopped. GE trees will contaminate native forests, which themselves will become contaminants in a never-ending cycle.
FSC’s “learning process”
FSC has begun a “genetic engineering learning process” to develop a set of rules so that FSC can directly oversee selected outdoor research field tests of GE trees on non-certified areas. FSC says that “The learning project would also set the base for discussing whether or not we should allow companies to be associated with FSC while using GE outside of any FSC certified operations.”
The learning process is divided into two phases. In the ongoing first phase, FSC established a “panel of experts” (June/July 2022) to develop “safeguards” that future FSC-governed field tests of GE trees would need to comply with. (The panel includes, for example, GE tree advocate and developer Professor Steven Strauss of Oregon State University in the US, who has campaigned for over twenty years for an end to FSC’s ban on GE trees, along with weaker international and national risk assessment regulations.)
In November 2022, the FSC Board will decide if the FSC “learning process” moves ahead to the next phase where companies would be invited to apply for FSC governance of their field tests, or if the entire process will be cancelled. If FSC moves ahead to devise guidance and oversee some field tests, FSC itself will be directly responsible for any resulting GE contamination or other environmental impacts from these outdoor experiments.
Downplaying role, responsibility
FSC rationalizes its project by saying, “Genetic engineering in forestry is likely to continue to happen with or without FSC, and the learning process explores if and how the [FSC] can contribute to minimize the potential negative impacts and optimize the potential benefits of the technology in this sector.” This is a fatalistic declaration about the role of the FSC – whose certification policies are based on the ethical principles and ecological standards of its membership and are the foundation for consumer trust – which has been critical in stopping the advance of GE trees and their contamination of forests. Most importantly, the process downplays or ignores the serious risks posed to forest ecosystems around the world.
It is clear that FSC’s policies and decisions have a direct impact on the global development and release of GE trees. For example, FSC’s 2011 decision to allow field tests of GE trees for research in non-certified areas resulted in companies expanding their development of GE trees.
In fact, FSC’s prohibition on GE trees currently stands in the way of commercialization of a GE glyphosate-tolerant eucalyptus tree in Brazil. FSC-certified pulp and paper company Suzano received approval from the Brazilian government in November 2021 to commercially plant its tree (a move denounced by civil society organizations in Brazil and across the world). However, Suzano can only commercially plant the GE tree if FSC overturns its current policy that prohibits certified companies from growing GE trees commercially in non-certified areas, or if Suzano leaves the FSC.
The commercial release of GE forest trees would be imminent if FSC continues taking steps toward allowing GE tree planting in certified or non-certified areas.
Lucy Sharratt is co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), which brings together 15 groups across Canada to research, monitor and raise awareness about issues relating to genetic engineering in food and farming. CBAN is a project on the shared platform of MakeWay Charitable Society. www.cban.ca. This article is an edited excerpt from stopGEtrees.org/FSCbriefing.