Modified forests could severely impact natural land (21/11/2007)

Modified forests could severely impact natural land
By: Josh Grenzsund, Columnist
Oregon Daily Emerald, 24 October 2007

Oregon has a growing self-perception, and reputation, as being a leader in the local and natural food craze. While 'local' may be easy to define, it is harder to define what we mean when we say 'natural.'

A lot of the anxiety behind consumers' demands for 'natural' foods comes from fear of the unknown. Will genetically engineered organisms spread their modified genes to their formerly 'wild' counterparts and irrevocably alter the 'natural' world? Maybe it's already happened. According to an article from Capital Press, 'The West's Agricultural Web Site,' there are as many as four million genetically improved Douglas Fir 'super trees' growing in about 790 test plots in Washington and Oregon.

While that may sound like a lot of pollen blowing unchecked under the summer sun, one has to choose how to interpret the information. One could side with the official line, pushed by forest products companies like Weyerhaeuser that focus on the benefits that could be had by faster reforestation after clear cutting or fire. Or one could side with the anti-modification advocates who not only push a more sensational story, but in the past have backed up their views with vandalism and arson. One such case in 2001 actually helped U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken give Stanislas Meyerhoff a 13-year prison sentence, and qualified him as a terrorist.

In contrast to the dramatic measures used by some modification opponents, the corporate story, at least according to Weyerhaeuser, says that what is occurring in Oregon's forests is quite natural and nothing to pay much mind to. Weyerhaeuser will tell the press that their trees that display remarkable disease resistance, rapid growth, and straight trunks are not actually 'genetically modified,' but rather are just 'genetic families' that have been bred for their desirable qualities. This is reassuring. As a discerning public we have generally acknowledged that breeding is acceptable, and a slightly controlled choice of which little fir tree gets to push its straight trunk into genetic futurity is just good business. Corporations will claim that breeding better, more disease-resistant organisms will also help with humanitarian problems, from hunger to global warming. It is, in short, inevitable, desirable progress.

The problem, however, begins to develop when Weyerhaeuser markets these same straight little trees as 'genetically improved' stock for when 'things are too important to be left to chance.' Just a little looking will reveal some of the steps that they have taken in order to assure high survivability and growth rates.

When the Tree Biosafety and Genomics Research Cooperative at Oregon State University was still known as The Tree Genetic Engineering Research Cooperative, they publicized their work with 'Roundup® resistant' trees. Aside from the obvious involvement of Monsanto on this project, Weyerhaeuser also helps fund the tree lab at OSU.

The old TGERC Web site still has information posted about their hundreds of lines of transgenic trees that 'have demonstrated high levels of tolerance and no detectable growth loss after multiple Roundup® applications…[and others]…that contain a synthetic gene from the cry3a strain of Bacillus thuringiensis…showed strong resistance to the cottonwood leaf beetle…and enhanced growth rate.' Here is where forest products companies end their tale and the anti-modification advocates pick it up.

While the most inflammatory propaganda from this camp will go on about 'frankenforests' of genetically modified trees that will devastate native forests and change the entire notion of what the natural world is, there are more reasoned arguments that intelligently refute the economic and humanitarian claims of corporations. The coherent core of these counter-claims takes a step back and looks not only at the trees and how they fall into the saws and pulps of our economic cycles, but how they stand as organisms within a larger cycle of plant and animal organisms in the places we call our forests.

In their publication, 'Genetically Modified Trees: The ultimate threat to forests,' the Friends of the Earth argue that the reason we should not genetically modify our trees, and thus our forests, is because we are not the only creatures who value trees. Insects, birds, and animals do not acknowledge property and national forest boundaries. They will eat or use whatever tree they happen to encounter and, for example, a tree with insecticide properties could pollinate across boundary lines, impact insect populations and disrupt an entire food chain.

This possibility of broad pollination raises a darker part of the issue: property. If, in two or three generations, forest life contains modified genes through cross-pollination, will the companies give up their ownership of that modified gene, or will we, the people, have to give up the trees that make up our forests?

We should not allow for that possibility. We should resist technological determinism when discussing whether or not we should modify organisms' genes, because giving in to its apparent inevitability will allow the genetic composition and fate of our world, and eventually our bodies, to be established by corporations' economic concerns. This local and worldwide issue is one in which you don't want to miss the forest for all the trees.


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