The USDA is currently considering the approval of the commercial use of genetically engineered trees for biofuel, lumber, and paper products. Are genetically engineered (GE) trees going to make these industries more sustainable? If you’re familiar with the ongoing fight to label genetically modified organism’s (GMO’s) in our food, then you might be scratching your head right now. Yet, some scientists are saying this is an exciting leap forward. Did the biotech industry break through the barriers that are still causing so much controversy with GMO’s or are they doing the same old thing and expecting different results?
Genetically engineered trees are being researched as a way to make “environmentally friendly” paper by reducing the chemically intensive process of removing lignin from wood. Lignin is the woody cellulose that gives a tree its structure. What better way to use less energy and fewer chemicals than to genetically engineer a tree to produce less lignin. That would be a break through indeed, since the reason why lignin is so hard to break down is because it is a very rigid substance. That is what gives a tree its sturdiness and strength.
So, let me guess, a beaver will take one bite out of a weak GE tree and it will topple over onto other weak GE trees creating a domino effect. Yes, there are some concerns to this genetic modification.
The soft wood of these low lignin trees can cause them to be more prone to pests, disease, and forest fires. So now scientists have found a way to keep the natural content of the lignin so trees can maintain their sturdiness. They instead inserted a gene from Chinese Angelica, also known as Dong Quai, that codes for ferulic acid. This helps the trees break down faster when treated with a mild base and temperatures over 100 degrees Celsius.
There are also studies being done to genetically engineer trees to accelerate their growth rate. This could also cause them to collapse. Yes, this has happened before with other factory farm products; such as chickens that are fed growth hormones. They artificially grow to fast and their legs collapse under the excessive weight.
The Biotech industry proclaims that GE trees can produce a sustainable solution to preserve natural forests, combat climate change, and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. So exactly how are they going to make these sustainable, factory forests that pump out massive amounts of altered wood? Easy, just plant 1000’s of acres of the same type of tree that is vastly different from a diverse and resilient forest.
Nature to keep up with the speed of man
Planting monoculture crops presumes man’s ability to try to simplify the complexity that gives nature its self-sustaining balance and biodiversity. Nature allows a suitable limit for each species. When one crop of species is planted on a large scale this can create an explosion of specific insects targeted to that crop. Large populations of dominate insects may out-compete other more diverse species and spread disease.
The only solution would be to spray more chemicals or engineer insect resistant trees, but these insects can develop a resistance as they did with genetically engineered corn. These altered corn crops were modified to produce Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) toxin to kill rootworm, but this insect evolved to build a resistance to the Bt toxin. This is the self-sustaining balance of nature at work. When these superbugs develop, scientists have no way of knowing how to deal with them. They are satisfied if the engineered trait last for 20 to 30 years. This is certainly not enough time for a sustainable forest to repair itself without expensive intervention and can even cause irreversible damage.
Monoculture plantations are chemically intensive large scale operations
These GE trees are made to be harvested every 3 years for biofuels and every 7 years for pulpwood. Compare this to the harvest of conventional tree farming that takes up to 25 years. This quick fix will require massive amounts of fertilizer to sustain excessive “turn and burn”.
Breaking up the soil
This chemically intensive process can cause poor soil quality. The harvests of these young trees also lack deep root systems that keep the soil intact. These soil health problems can cause runoff, erosion, and flash floods.
GE eucalyptus trees are planned to take over conventional pine plantations in the southeast. These non-native Eucalyptus are known to suck up more water than pine plantations. Not only that, they can compete with native forests for ground water. This is at a time when water shortages are becoming more prevalent. Relying on deep rooted trees with fertile soil can increase drought resistance as well.
The climate change paradox
GE trees are often advertised to be useful in carbon sequestration, but old growth forests are known to store up to 3 times the carbon as these immature trees with unstable soils. Now that biofuels are in increasing demand, these monoculture crops could actually exasperate climate change. The burning of wood as a source of biofuel actually produces high rates of greenhouse gas emissions. And this is supposed to be a sustainable solution to burning fossil fuels?
We all know how reoccurring hot and dry climates can cause catastrophic wildfires. Eucalyptus is prone to cause forest fires with their resin rich leaves, flammable bark, and litter debris. In fact, some species of eucalyptus have a better chance to germinate after landing on the hot flamed ground.
The spread of GE tree seeds
How do we keep the genetically engineered seeds from spreading to other trees? The spreading of the seeds has happened with GMO’s. Monsanto’s Round Up crops have cross pollinated with native vegetation and non GMO crops.
Trees can produce up to 30 million seeds that can blow in the wind and travel up to 25 miles. Sterile tree production by inhibiting flower, pollen, and seeds is still in the developmental stage. However, it is extremely difficult to totally suppress a tree’s reproduction.
Diverse communities of plants and animals make up 70% of our native forests. Plant and soil microbes also give unique resistance to pests and disease. Imagine a factory forests with acres of perfectly aligned trees stretching for miles across the land. All the insects have been kept away, the soil is depleted, and you can’t hear the birds sing. They have disserted the area because they cannot find food in the sterile, lifeless forest. You would never think that the biggest factory without four walls would be so silent.
There is growing opposition of the public who do not want these trees to be mass produced. The International Campaign to Stop GE Trees includes 245 organizations from 49 countries. Despite the environmental objections, Arbergen Biotech Corporation projects that the company’s profits will sky rocket from $25 million to $500 million in just 5 years.
Still, the USDA approved field trials for 250,000 trees in 7 states. Scientists say that they will harvest the trees before they reach maturity until further research can be done to study sterile tree growth.
Ah yes, the millions of parched, non-native, saplings spread across many states that may be too frail to hold up against a storm or fire. Desperately wanting to establish its roots long enough to maintain its resilience to disease and pests. Yearning to leave a legacy by giving back to the soil and help create diverse, thriving communities that depend on each other. The life cycle of one piece of paper has left quite a paper trail.