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What is the problem with GE trees?

Trees differ in a number of important characteristics from field crops. Trees have a much longer lifespan (ranging from decades to centuries) and a large geographic distribution. They are exposed longer to a wider range of biotic and abiotic stresses (e.g. cold, drought, storm) than field crops. As compared with annual crops, trees are not highly domesticated and can readily outcross to ‘wild’ trees outside managed plantations. They can do so over very long distances, as tree pollen and seeds are mostly highly mobile. They are integral to complex and highly diverse ecosystems (e.g. forests) and they fulfil important functions regarding water regulation as well as micro and macro climate systems. There is very little data, knowledge and understanding about all this, about how genetic engineering might affect a tree in the long term and how genetically engineered (GE) trees might impact ecosystems, water and climate systems. There is a high degree of uncertainty and unpredictability. Therefore the risks of genetically engineered (GE) trees go much beyond those of (mainly annual) GE field crops. Their danger to natural forests, biodiversity and global forest ecosystems, make the release of GE trees a global concern. Nevertheless there are attempts to reduce the risk assessment of GE trees to the same few factors that are commonly used to assess annual GE crops like maize and soya. For the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meetings in 2008, EcoNexus highlighted these problems in detail by giving an Overview of risk assessment issues of GE trees and by commenting on the potential ecological and social impacts of GE trees in cooperation with ten other NGOs with different expertise. EcoNexus also takes effects of GE trees on human health into account. GE trees are sometimes proposed not only for their expected production traits, but also as a strategy to deal with global warming, e.g. as carbon sink. In a briefing paper for the CBD in 2006, EcoNexus explains why this strategy is short-sighted and not a viable alternative to protecting existing forests.

From the Green Revolution ...

Rice is the world's leading staple food crop depended upon by half of the world’s people. Over centuries, Asian farmers bred and selected hundreds of thousands of local varieties, land races and cultivars that are adapted to specific environments and farming systems. Among others, this lead to varieties with tolerance to drought, flooding, salt, pests and diseases, as well as to different characteristics and flavours, textures, nutritional values and cooking qualities.
However the Green Revolution brought major change. Research funded by industrialized countries and companies focused solely on the rice plant to improve grain yields, and ignored other factors of the integrated farming systems in which rice is grown such as paddy aquaculture. By focussing on grain yields only the yield of the whole plant (including straw) and the overall yield from the system of land-use such as fish and other animals in the waters, edible weeds or increased soil fertilitywere left beyond consideration. .
Emphasis was given to ‘seed improvement’ leading to the development of varieties responsive to and dependent on high chemical inputs for increased yields. This approach required monoculture production systems with little room versatile planting and support systems. This approach also led to high levels of pests, necessitating increased use of pesticides, which further impacts ecological balances and support systems.
... to Golden Rice
Today's GE rice research still persists in pursuing the same goals, threatening farmers and food security as the Thai farmer Daoreung Pheudphon explains in an interview with EcoNexus.
The best-known GE rice is probably the so-called Golden Rice, rice that has been modified to contain pro-vitamin A (beta-carotene). After more then a decade of initial research resulted in a crop that yielded very small levels of pro-vitamin A, alterations were made to the GE design. Some improvements have been announced and the web of patents surrounding its development have been somewhat reduced. The creation of the GE rice with increased pro-vitamin A levels was first announced in January 2000 in an article in Science. Yet a decade later there is still wide criticism of the GE approach to Vitamin A deficiency when so many alternatives are readily available. Health concerns regarding appropriate (minimum and maximum) amounts as well as concerns about the role of patents in agricultural research are also still valid.

Techniques and effects of genetic engineering

Genetic engineering (GE) changes the genetic make up of an organism by adding, removing, inhibiting, exchanging or relocating genes or DNA sequences. The DNA sequence used to produce a genetically modified organism (GMO) may be sourced from the same species, a completely unrelated species or may be assembled from synthetic DNA.

Numerous studies have focused on the intended traits and functions associated with particular gene sequences, also covering the performance of GMOs with regards to the introduced trait, for example herbicide tolerant maize. Econexus focuses on the unintended, unpredictable or unexpected changes that take place and has examined the technologies used in GE and the unintended effects these have on the genome.

In a detailed report about Genome Scrambling, EcoNexus examined the numerous mutations in GM crop plants caused by the transformation processes themselves. The report analysed the scientific literature on the two most frequently used plant transformation methods (Agrobacterium-mediated transformation and ‘particle bombardment’ or ‘gene gun’). The results are also published in BGER, - Analysis and biosafety implications– and are also summarised in the Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology - The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation.

The transgenic inserts engineered into plants come with intrinsic risks. Just like normal genes, transgenic inserts need to be activated. For this they require a promoter sequence. In most GM plants this sequence has for many years been the same strong CaMV 35S promoter (derived from the cauliflower mosaic virus). It was introduced without an appropriate risk assessment. A number of pure assumptions were also made about how it would behave. However, the notion that the viral CaMV 35S promoter would only be active in plant cells, but not in bacteria, fungi, mammalian or human cells has by now been proven wrong, but the potential consequences are still not sufficiently assessed.

EcoNexus also studied horizontal gene transfer, such as transfer of the transgenes from the plant to other organisms, for example the horizontal gene transfer of viral inserts from GM plants to viruses.

Agrofuels: Towards a Reality Check in Nine Key Areas

This document focuses on particular types of ‘biofuel’ which we prefer to call agrofuel because of the intensive, industrial way it is produced, generally as monocultures, often covering thousands of hectares, most often in the global South.

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