What is Genetic Engineering?
Genetic engineering (sometimes called genetic modification), leads to the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by making changes directly to the genetic material of an organism, without mating, through the introduction of genetic material or by using techniques that induce changes to the organism’s genome. These invasive processes can result in genetic errors and lead to other unexpected consequences.
What Are Genetically Engineered (GE) Trees?
Trees such as American chestnut, eucalyptus, poplar, sweetgum and pine are being genetically engineered to have new traits such as faster growth, insect and disease resistance, herbicide tolerance, and altered wood composition. None of these GE trees are legal yet, but a genetically engineered (GE) blight-resistant American chestnut is being proposed for release into forests in the US and Canada.
What are the Environmental Risks?
If legalized, GE trees threaten to spread freely in the wild, contaminating native forests, damaging ecosystems and harming communities. Trees spread their pollen and seeds over many miles through wind and water, or by insects and animals. Locating and monitoring all GE trees and their progeny will be nearly impossible, especially over a long period of time. Trees also have a very long life-cycle and can live for decades or centuries. This means that any contamination would be both irreversible and widespread. It also means that the risks GE trees pose to forests and communities are not possible to assess.
What is the Genetically Engineered American Chestnut Tree?
Researchers have genetically engineered an American chestnut tree to tolerate an introduced blight that killed large numbers of these trees in the wild. The tree is transgenic, meaning that it has been genetically engineered using genes from other species. The researchers are seeking government approval to release this GE American chestnut tree into the wild so that it will spread throughout our forests. If legalized, this would be the first GE plant ever to be released into the wild with the intent to contaminate wild relatives. It would also be the first-ever GE tree approved in the US, opening the doors to others. There are no long-term risk assessments to understand the environmental, social or health risks posed by releasing this GE tree into wild forests, and such assessments may not even be possible.
What Are The Potential Health Risks of GE Trees?
People living near GE tree plantations could face health risks from the use of toxic chemicals on tree plantations, which would be greater if the trees were engineered to tolerate herbicides. If the trees are genetically engineered to be insect resistant, the pollen will contain insecticidal properties and could trigger asthma or allergic reactions. Tree nuts, such as GE American chestnuts, would need long-term assessments for food safety.
How Could GE Trees Exacerbate Climate Change?
Every year forests are destroyed to expand industrial tree plantations. These land use changes worsen climate change, destroy natural habitats, and threaten the lives, livelihoods, and cultures of forest-dependent and Indigenous peoples and communities. Trees that are genetically engineered to grow even faster could provide greater incentives to expand tree plantations, displacing more communities and native ecosystems. In addition, eucalyptus and pine plantations are extremely flammable and have contributed to deadly firestorms. Fast growing eucalyptus trees also deplete groundwater and soils. In Chile, Indigenous Mapuche communities near tree plantations have lost access to water.