Sam Burcher dot com

Sam Burcher, news views and bits inbetween......
Total Site Hits

A Silent Forest

Hits: 3838

A DVD film that exposes the growing global threat of genetically modified trees and the startling impact of genetic engineering on biodiversity

GM is science gone wrong

a-silent-forestDavid Suzuki of David Suzuki Foundation is a geneticist who has enjoyed a twenty-five year career in science that includes heading the largest genetics laboratory in Canada. He agreed to narrate A Silent Forest because he is deeply concerned about the unseemly haste in applying ideas from genetic engineering to the real world.  He believes that it is far too early to put genetically modified (GM) traits into medicines, and foods, or in our fields.

DNA taken from one species and inserted into another species, is horizontal gene transfer, and is the basis of genetic engineering.  Suzuki is adamant that it is simply bad science for the pro-GM lobby to imply that horizontal gene transfer is the same process as the fundamental exchange of male and female genes, which is known as vertical inheritance.

“One gene, one protein, equals one trait”

This is the favoured theory used by genetic engineers to explain the process of artificial selection, and is, according to Suzuki, “a caricature of misrepresentation.” In nature, genes function within the context of an entire genome, and within a whole organism. (See Living with the Fluid Genome )

Genetic engineering alters the context in which the gene is found. It is new and complex, and yields unexplained results. Suzuki’s example is to take the singer Bono out of his band U2, and putting him into the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. There would be sound, but there is no way of predicting how precise, or what the sum total of the activity would be.

Are GM trees real?

Genetically modified trees are not science fiction, Suzuki says. There are hundreds and possibly thousands of GM tree test plots all over the world. (See UN Caution Against GM trees) GM DNA is inserted into the embryos of plants usually using a bacterium or virus. These genes would be extracted from an unrelated organism, whose transfer could never happen naturally, or, by hybridisation.

The four design parameters of GM trees:

  • Sterile trees - produce no nuts, fruits, seeds, flowers, or pollen. This drastic intervention, it is hoped, will stop the cross contamination of native trees and other species, via insects, and wind blown pollination.
  • Herbicide resistant trees – can be sprayed with company herbicide and survive, but many other plants and species die.
  • Low lignin trees – has had half it’s strength removed. It grows faster, and is cheaper and easier for the paper industry to pulp. But it is vulnerable to environmental stresses such as high winds. Once fallen, it decomposes quicker, returning C02 to the atmosphere at an accelerated timescale.
  • Total tree a pesticide – this tree is a systemic toxin that kills all insects that feed on it, with no specific target, and no limit as to what is harmed.

Environmental effects of GM trees

Sterility bred into plants and trees is no guarantee that cross-pollination stops happening. One hundred percent sterility is impossible, as the urge to reproduce is powerful. This technology can never be reliable; sterility can be spread into food crops and into native forests. Forests that cannot sustain insects and animals through its’ harvest, are not forest at all.

Herbicide resistance is also problematic. The number one herbicide in the US is Monsanto’s Roundup Ready. When liberally and/or aerially sprayed on GM crops and trees many plants in its path are killed, but so are earthworms and small mammals. Fish, frogs, and aquatic invertebrates are particularly sensitive to it. Roundup contains Glyphosate, a chemical known to cause birth defects and allergic effects (See Glyphosate toxic and Roundup worse

In California, there has been an increase of illness in human outdoor workers who are using Roundup.  Its effects on wildlife appear to be as lethal as DDT, which was considered an innovative chemical for pest control, until songbirds and eagles started to disappear. Denmark has had the foresight to ban glyphosate when it was found in drinking water.

Infecting the entire system of a tree with a toxin also harms many species. Monica Moore of PAN (Pesticide Action Network) points out that the pesticide gene is always “on” and expressing itself, and it cannot be turned off.  She cautions that the insects that develop resistance to Bt, select similar insects, and produce superbugs. The film cites Institute of Science In Society paper Superbugs and Anthrax Genes, as a further warning of the potential hazards of Bt recombining with other bacteria genes in the soil.

What harm to humans and animals?

Ignacio Chapela of Berkeley University says that Bt trees are a crazy idea. Trees have long life cycles, from between 50-100 years, and longer. Therefore putting toxins into every cell will affect insects and organisms for a very long time. Bt flows through the soil via the roots of GM trees (or GM corn) into the soil. This alters the microbial composition of the soil. From the soil it can leach into groundwater and surface water. Where GM corn is grown, up to 5 times the safe limit of bt toxin is found in groundwater.

Dr Maewan Ho (Institute of Science in Society), on her lecture tour of the Philippines at the end of 2005, found that farmers exposed to Bt crops in 2003 are still battling with illnesses. (See Further illnesses in farm workers and handlers of Bt cotton, and mass deaths among sheep grazing in Bt cotton fields have now turned up in India.

Who owns life?

Percy Schmeiser features in the film and explains how Monsanto used him as a test case (Monsanto vs. Schmeiser), to gauge the legal implications of GM contamination.  After two and a half weeks of trial, the judge ruled that it did not matter how GM particles got into his fields, e.g. by wind, buds, insects, a passing truck. If even one percent of Schmeisers’ crop was contaminated by GM material, then it becomes the property of the corporation.  

The “one gene, one protein” hypothesis automatically assumes ownership on behalf of the corporation who has made the GM plant, tree, or seed, and whatever it comes into contact with and contaminates. One gene ownership is a dangerous premise with the potential to control our entire natural environment. This includes parks, and wildernesses, and represents the privitization of life itself. In theory pollen drift from a GM test plot in Michigan could contaminate all the trees in North America.

Impoverishing the global south

GM tree plantations are targeted at locations where labour and land is cheap. In countries such as Chile and Brazil an increasing amount of precious land and water is given over to GM plantations that destroy self-sufficient communities and ruin the lives of indigenous and rural people. No serious consideration is given to the effects of GM trees on communities or ecosystems.

Alternative methods of paper production must be developed in order to eliminate the need for forest-based paper manufacturing. There are many examples of strong natural crops such as hemp from which paper could be made. Ethical choices by consumers can influence industry in this direction. A great deal of savings on paper use in advertising and packaging can also be made.

David Suzuki concludes his narration by saying that most of our current ideas involving biotechnology are going to turn out to be wrong. In any revolutionary areas, many ideas are proved wrong, and this is how progress is made.The rush to commercialise GM trees is absolutely dangerous because we haven’t a clue what the long-term implications of our manipulations will be.

For more details on protest days against GM trees, and to order a copy of A Silent Forest contact: