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Genetically Engineered Trees & Risk Assessment

Trees differ in a number of important characteristics from field crops, and these characteristics are also relevant for any risk assessment of genetically engineered (GE) trees. A review of the scientific literature shows that due to the complexity of trees as organisms with large habitats and numerous interactions, currently no meaningful and sufficient risk assessment of GE trees is possible, and that especially a trait-specific risk assessment is not appropriate. Both scientific literature and in-field experience show that contamination by and dispersal of GE trees will take place. Transgenic sterility is not an option to avoid the potential impacts posed by GE trees and their spread. Regulation of trees on a national level will not be sufficient because due to the large-scale dispersion of reproductive plant material, GE trees are likely to cross national borders. All this makes GE trees a compelling case for the application of the precautionary principle.

Agrofuels and the Myth of the Marginal Lands

It is claimed that growing agrofuels on marginal lands will bring development benefits to Southern countries, while avoiding the negative impacts on forests, food security, climate change and land rights, brought about by agrofuels so far. But a closer look finds that growing on “marginal” lands will not avoid these problems, but exacerbate them.

Transformation-induced Mutations in Transgenic Plants

Plant transformation has become an essential tool for plant molecular biologists and, almost simultaneously, transgenic plants have become a major focus of many plant breeding programs. The first transgenic cultivar arrived on the market approximately 15 years ago, and some countries have since commercially approved or deregulated (e.g. the United States) various commodity crops with the result that certain transgenic crop plants, such as herbicide resistant canola and soya and pest resistant maize, are currently grown on millions of acres.

The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation

Plant transformation is a genetic engineering tool for introducing transgenes into plant genomes. It is now being used for the breeding of commercial crops. A central feature of transformation is insertion of the transgene into plant chromosomal DNA. Transgene insertion is infrequently, if ever, a precise event. Mutations found at transgene insertion sites include deletions and rearrangements of host chromosomal DNA and introduction of superfluous DNA. Insertion sites introduced using Agrobacterium tumefaciens tend to have simpler structures but can be associated with extensive chromosomal rearrangements, while those of particle bombardment appear invariably to be associated with deletion and extensive scrambling of inserted and chromosomal DNA. Ancillary procedures associated with plant transformation, including tissue culture and infection with A. tumefaciens, can also introduce mutations. These genome-wide mutations can number from hundreds to many thousands per diploid genome. Despite the fact that confidence in the safety and dependability of crop species rests significantly on their genetic integrity, the frequency of transformation-induced mutations and their importance as potential biosafety hazards are poorly understood.

Golden Rice, Patents and Vitamin A Deficiency

‘Golden Rice’ first caught the headlines in 2000. Genetically engineered with 3 genes from daffodils and bacteria, this GM rice has been designed to produce pro-vitamin A. Claimed by GM proponents and biotech industry as the answer to vitamin A deficiency (VAD), others see it as a diversion from relatively low-cost, but effective, initiatives, which can help people to achieve a better diet almost immediately. Furthermore, the experience of Southern farmers is that intensive rice production with the use of high chemical inputs ended their integrated farming systems. Such systems included other food sources such as fish, snails, water fowl and green leafy vegetables to provide a wide range of essential nutrients including (pro)vitamin A. ‘Golden Rice’ has still not been tested for environmental or food safety nor assessed for socio-economic impacts.

Argentina and GM soya

Soya is not bringing wealth to Argentina. "We are being occupied by the seed multinationals that have patented life and are forcing us to pay tribute to them," says Jorge Eduardo Rulli, one of Argentina’s leading agronomists. "The more we produce the poorer we become."

Potential Impacts of Synthetic Biology on the Biodiversity

The new and emerging issue of synthetic biology is relevant to the attainment of the objectives of the CBD, its thematic programmes of work and cross-cutting issues. We recommend that SBSTTA, in the development of options and advice on the new and emerging issue of synthetic biology for the consideration of COP11, consider the following actions/recommendations under the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress, and the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing.

Synthetic Biology needs urgent attention from the SBSTTA

With Decision IX/29, and in particular in accordance with paragraph 4 of decision X/13, the CBD called for "submissions of information on synthetic biology and geo-engineering, while applying the precautionary approach to the field release of synthetic life, cell or genome into the environment". We herewith would like to submit our concerns and relevant information to particular aspects of Synthetic Biology, such as DIY Synthetic Biology and Bio-hacking. Civil society organisations have highlighted the risks repeatedly over the years.

Genetic Dialectic

The processes through which genetically engineered trees are being developed are profoundly biased against social arrangements which promote and rely on biological diversity. These processes are also riven by dilemmas and destructive tendencies which chains of technical refinements, no matter how long, are likely to be powerless to overcome. Tackling the challenge GM trees pose means tackling the industrial and bureaucratic tradition which seeks the radical simplification of landscapes. That entails alliance-building with groups working against or outside that tradition, from seed savers to communities battling encroachment of industrial tree farms on their land. In these respects, the issues raised by GM trees are similar to those raised by GM crops. Yet in many ways, genetic modification in forestry is an even more serious issue than genetic engineering in agriculture. Trees’ long lives and largely undomesticated status, their poorly understood biology and lifecycles, the complexity and fragility of forest ecosystems, and corporate and state control over enormous areas of forest land on which GM trees could be planted combine to create risks which are unique. The biosafety and social implications of the application of genetic engineering to forestry are grave enough to warrant both an immediate halt to releases of GM trees and renewed attention to the social, historical and political roots of the tree biotech boom.

Objection against the planned Rocpwer biofuel plant

I am writing to object to the new planning application from Rocpower Ltd to build a 7 MW biofuel power station at Baraugh Green, which would burn about 10,000 tonnes of vegetable oil every year.