GE Trees: Poor Countries Can’t Control

Courtsey of Museo d\'Arte Contemporanea, Turin, Italy

by Stephen Leahy

BONN, May 29 (IPS) – An intense North-South debate over genetically engineered trees has sidetracked delegates at a U.N. conference on biodiversity here: African nations want a global moratorium, while a few rich countries led by Canada say it should be up to individual countries to regulate.

While 168 nations that are part of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) debate the issue, a new two-year U.N.-funded study warns that developing countries simply don’t have the capacity to manage or monitor biotechnology.

“Africa doesn’t have the technical and scientific capacity to fully debate let alone enforce rules around biosafety of biotechnology,” said the study’s co-author, Sam Johnston of the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UN-IAS) in Tokyo.

“Genetic contamination by GE plants is a huge issue and it’s increasing,” Johnston told IPS in Bonn.

Under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, industrialised countries like Canada have a legal commitment to provide funding to help poorer countries build their capacity to regulate and enforce biosafety standards for products of biotechnology, but simply haven’t provided anything close to the necessary funding, he said.

“Countries importing GE crops can’t even do the most basic biosafety,” Johnston said.

Countries that have ratified the CBD are obligated to protect global biodiversity — the variety of life that sustains humanity. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety regulates the transboundary movements of GE organisms and is a subsidiary agreement to the CBD.

The U.N.-IAS study involved a comprehensive assessment of developing countries’ technical, policy and enforcement capacities. It found deficiencies in more than 100 countries in Africa, Central Asia, Oceania and the Caribbean that “are so pervasive and broad that there is no effective international system of biosafety at the moment”.

The United States, Argentina and Canada lobbied successfully against a more rigourous Cartagena Protocol on the promise of building self-regulatory capacity in developing countries. “They have totally failed to deliver on their promise,” Johnston said.

Meanwhile, the biofuels boom has sparked concern that research on genetically engineering trees for use as biofuels is ramping up, with field trials in the U.S., Canada, China, New Zealand and elsewhere. Before the Bonn conference began, 46 environmental groups from two dozen countries called on the government delegates to accept a proposal to suspend all releases of GE trees into the environment “due to their extreme ecological and social threats”.

Trees have been genetically engineered to resist pesticides and insects, to grow more quickly and have less lignin so they are easier to convert into biofuels. None are commercially available as yet. Scientists have long warned that trees are not like food crops, which have significant genetic differences, for example, between domestic wheat and wild grassland species.

The risk of interbreeding between GE trees and normal trees is high. Pollen from trees can be transported more than 1,000 kilometres, according to some research. Moreover, faster growing, low-lignin trees resistant to common pests could easily become an invasive species and dominate natural forests.

“Genetically engineered trees threaten to contaminate native forests around the world with unnatural and destructive traits such as the ability to kill insects, or have reduced lignin — the substance that enables a tree to stand up straight and withstand disease,” said Anne Petermann, co-director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, in a release.

Members of the CBD previously agreed that countries ought to use the precautionary approach with regard to genetically engineered trees. In Bonn, all of the African countries and some in Europe have proposed that the CBD recommend a moratorium. Even though Canada has a small GE tree research programme, it opposes the moratorium, insisting that countries can use their own national regulations to deal with any biosafety or contamination issues.

“Canada has boldly ignored the African moratorium proposal and ignored our concerns here in Canada,” Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, said in an interview in Bonn.

“The six African environment ministers who addressed the opening high-level plenary Wednesday affirmed the need for a GE tree moratorium,” Sharratt said.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his environment minister also addressed the plenary but did not defend Canada’s position. Indeed, they said nothing about GE trees.

Africa’s concerns are “very valid”, says Johnston. Simply plowing ahead with GE trees shows the proponents of biotechnology have not learned from past mistakes that created public opposition and concern over the technology in the first place, he said, adding: “Society will not trust or tolerate a new technology without effective safety standards and enforcement.”

For complete story see GE Tree Dispute Exposes Biosafety Inequities

2 thoughts on “GE Trees: Poor Countries Can’t Control

  1. Steve,
    An interesting report, Steve. In Taiwan, today, news about the Taiwan govt talking about planting trees in communist CHina and other countries, in order to apply for carbon credits, since not enough room in Taiwan. will send news story later


    you can find it here under Taiwan News

  2. Taiwan Firms eye communist China for carbon credits

    TREES GO, EMISSIONS STAY: Companies say they cannot find enough land locally to plant trees to offset carbon dioxide emissions, so they hope to plant trees overseas

    By Meggie Lu

    Wednesday, Jun 04, 2008, Page 1

    The Taiwan government could allow industries to plant trees in China and other countries to help reduce greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, an official said yesterday.

    Under a bill proposed by the Cabinet, authorities would place caps on the amount of carbon dioxide that major industries are allowed to emit annually. The legislature is expected to approve the bill soon, officials said.

    Stephen Shen (沈世宏), head of the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), told lawmakers that companies may choose to grow trees, which can absorb carbon dioxide, in Taiwan or in other countries to help reach the emission targets by offsetting some of their gas emissions.

    “Carbon dioxide emissions cause warming globally, not just in Taiwan,” he said.

    Some industries say they cannot find enough land to plant trees domestically.

    Officials say oil refineries, power plants and steel, chemical and plastics factories together accounted for more than 50 percent of the 268 million tonnes of greenhouse gases produced by the nation last year.

    The government has pledged to gradually cut its greenhouse gases so that its 2016 total would not exceed this year’s level.

    The government has said it will plant 60,000 hectares of forest in the next few years to help reach that goal.

    Taiwan is not a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

    But as a major trader, Taiwan wants to contain its greenhouse gases to prevent other countries from imposing barriers on its products on environmental grounds.

    In related news, the EPA yesterday encouraged consumers to help fight global warming by shopping in stores that display “Green Store” certificates and purchase eco-friendly products that carry the EPA’s “Green Mark.”

    “In observance of World Environment Day tomorrow, the EPA has planned an array of activities with a central theme of promoting a low carbon economy,” the EPA Air Quality Protection and Noise Control director-general Hsiao Hui-chuan (蕭慧娟) said.

    Though the concept of “green consumption” may sound like an oxymoron, Yang Ching-shi (楊慶熙), the director-general of the EPA’s department of supervision evaluation and dispute resolution, said that shopping green means offering more sustainable options to the public when they purchase necessities.

    “When we say green consumption, we are telling the public to choose products friendly to the environment when they need to buy things. However, we still encourage people to abstain from buying unnecessary things,” Yang said.

    With this in mind, the EPA refrains from giving Green Marks to products it does not deem as life necessities, such as disposable diapers or kitchen napkins, he said.

    Beyond promoting the green concept, the EPA also aims to remind businesses to keep sustainability in mind while fixing their eyes upon the economy.

    “[The administration] started issuing Green Store certificates to retailers who carry three or more Green Mark products this year, with the goal of raising the certification threshold when more stores begin to sell green products,” he said.

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