Wildlife & Biodiversity

Apply precautionary principle to biotechnologies, scientists & policymakers urge at COP15 Montreal

US Department of Agriculture pushing release of genetically engineered American chestnut into the wild worrying

By Shuchita Jha
Published: Monday 12 December 2022
American chestnut was once dominant in eastern North American forests and was decimated in the first half of the 20th century by a fungal blight. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
American chestnut was once dominant in eastern North American forests and was decimated in the first half of the 20th century by a fungal blight. Photo: Wikimedia Commons American chestnut was once dominant in eastern North American forests and was decimated in the first half of the 20th century by a fungal blight. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A white paper detailing the potential dangers of genetically engineered trees and biotechnologies was released at the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Montreal, Canada.

The paper from scientists and policy experts appealed to world leaders at COP15 to apply a precautionary principle to biotechnologies that may harm insect pollinators. 

Titled Biotechnology for Forest Health?, the paper detailed the harm genetically engineered trees can bring on if allowed to grow in the wild as a solution to conserve biodiversity. Forest certification regimes Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative have also banned the use of genetically engineered (GE) trees. 

Read more: Experts slam trial for new Bt brinjal variety, cite regulatory lapses

Researchers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science, United States, have claimed the GE American chestnut (AC) will be blight resistant, the paper cited. 

The tree species was once dominant in eastern North American forests and was decimated in the first half of the 20th century by a fungal blight (Cryphonectria parasitica, also referred to as chestnut blight) and logging. The researchers are trying to get the government’s approval to release GE AC into the wild. 

“If they are successful, it will be the first GE forest tree species planted specifically to spread freely through forests. Once released, there will be little potential to track or reverse its spread,” said the paper.

There are direct and indirect financial links between organisations promoting GE trees and the non-profit The American Chestnut Foundation, the paper stated.

The case of GE AC is being used to sway public opinion towards the use of biotechnology for forest conservation and to pave the way for the introduction of other GE trees, it added. 

“The researchers developing the GE AC, tree biotechnology company ArborGen, biotechnology company Monsanto (now Bayer), Duke Energy, government agencies and other entities including the Forest Health Initiative and the Institute of Forest Biosciences are deeply invested in advancing the use of biotechnology for forest restoration as a public relations tool,” it said.

A handful of billionaires are engaging in these extreme solutions, said Tom Wakeford, biologist, action researcher and the Europe coordinator for the ETC group, in a press briefing. Wakeford also highlighted the side effects and the damage that GE trees and crops can cause. 

“These are false techno-fixes being promoted by people like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who are are completely unaccountable,” the biologist said. 

Read more: The world gets a note of caution on gene drives introduction

The developers of GE trees are “just treating the planet as a machine” and tweaking it with the help of billionaires to make as much money as possible. 

The GE AC tree has been engineered with an oxalate oxidase enzyme, or OxO, derived from wheat, along with other marker and promoter genes, the paper stated. The OxO trait does not eliminate the pathogen but inhibits it from spreading on the tree, making it less lethal. 

“While tests on a small number of young GE AC trees have shown some resistance to Cryphonectria, extrapolation from these results is unreliable, given the long lifespan of AC (potentially over 200 years) and the variable conditions it encounters in nature,” it read. 

Efforts to genetically engineer pathogen resistance, even in common agricultural crops, have been unsuccessful, the paper warned. Pathogens evolve to overcome plant defences and increasing resistance to one pathogen may lead to higher susceptibility to others.

Wakeford added that in the last few weeks, Bill Gates visited Kenya and committed $7 billion to Africa for high-tech approaches to agriculture and one of the East African governments agreed to 10 million bags of GMOs being used there to deal with hunger. 

“These technologies (GM crops) of 20 years weren’t subject to a proper assessment. There wasn’t any anticipatory work, what here we call ‘horizon scanning’ to see what was coming down the line,” the biologist said. 

They just arrived in the control of companies like Monsanto (now Bayer) and the results we all know have been environmental devastation, human health impacts and biodiversity collapse, he further said, adding he was afraid there was worse up these companies’ sleeves. 

The Gates Foundation is among the biggest funders along with the US defence research agency of Gene Drive organisms to GE trees, he added. 

“Dangerous biotechnologies put pollinators at risk and threaten nature’s contributions to biodiversity and people,” said Luca Garibaldi, co-chair of the intergovernmental panel on biodiversity and ecosystem services and co-author of the paper. 

Read more: Genetically engineered trees can clean up paper industry

Humans in the last few decades have moved species from one continent to another, he added. This has created a problem of invasive species in many parts of the world, which is the leading cause of loss of biodiversity across the world and GM crops and trees will be even worse. 

The consequences of this can be catastrophic, Garibaldi said. 

The UN in 2008 had warned against the use of GM trees when it stressed the need for a precautionary approach regarding genetically engineered trees. However, the US Department of Agriculture is pushing to release GM AC into wild forests to self-replicate and replace the wild species, the panellists said at the press meet.  

There is no long-term understanding of the risks this poses to forests’ biodiversity and pollinators, so it is like “looking down the barrel of this potential gun at our forest and biodiversity”, they added. 

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.