FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 25, 2000
For further information: Faith T. Campbell, 202-547-9120 or firstname.lastname@example.org
American Lands Alliance Urges the Clinton Administration to Place a Moratorium on Approval of Genetically Engineered Trees Until Their Environmental Safety Can be Assured
In May, the Clinton Administration announced an interagency review of the safety of genetically engineered organisms. In a report released today, Genetically Engineered Trees: Questions Without Answers, American Lands concludes that GE trees pose severe risks to the environment -- significantly greater than do engineered annual crops -- and commercial use should be postponed.
"The regulatory safety net and supporting research program are not capable of ensuring the safety of this technology," said Faith T. Campbell, Ph.D., director of American Lands' Invasive Species Program. "This is not just because they are underfunded but also because they involve too narrow a range of scientific disciplines."
"There is no consensus that this highly risky technology -- genetic engineering -- will provide the best solution o such oft-cited challenges as ensuring adequate wood supplies, maintaining forest-based industries in North America, and improving protection for natural forests and biodiversity," said Campbell.
A present, no genetically engineered trees are being grown commercially in either the United States or Canada. However, considerable research is under way in an effort to develop "better" trees -- for example, trees with reduced lignin that would be easier to process into paper; or to "simplify" management -- by increasing tolerance for herbicides or by manufacturing their own insecticide. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued permits for close to 300 experimental plots; Canadian authorities have issued permits for four.
"Americans may be surprised to learn that regulation of most GE organisms ceases when they are approved for commercial use -- which is just when the danger is greatest that the 'novel' genes might 'escape' to the wider environment," said Campbell, author of the report. "The risk of genes' escaping is particularly high when scientists are experimenting with native tree species -- as is happening in the United States and Canada. Wild relatives will be growing near any plantations of transgenic trees; if the plantations are not managed under very strict regulations, pollen or seeds will move out into the environment. No one knows what the impacts could be from such an 'escape'."
If trees are engineered to produce insecticides, the result might be to disrupt food webs that support birds, amphibians, and fish that feed on insects. While that impact might initially be confined to the plantation, if the genes 'escape' to nearby forests, the effect could be much broader. Alternatively, insects considered to be pests might develop resistance to the insecticide and then be harder to control. Forests in National Forests and National Parks might suffer increased damage by such "super pests".
American Lands also found that scientific information is inadequate to judge either the likelihood of ecological damage stemming from use of genetic engineering in trees or the extent of any such damage. To evaluate these risks requires study by interdisciplinary teams made up of ecologists, field biologists, geneticists (including experts in conservation genetics, traditional breeding methods, and population genetics), tree physiologists, and silviculturists (applied forest ecologists), as well as the GE practitioners who now conduct most of the research.
"For these reasons, American Lands expands on the Worldwide Fund for Nature's 1999 call for a world-wide moratorium on approving new uses of genetically engineered organisms -- especially GE trees," said Campbell. "We seek not just additional research, but debate on and adoption of a coherent strategy to ensure their safety." This strategy must include new regulatory power over GE organisms approved for commercial use and a system for responding to an emergency. Research programs should be expanded, as well as funded and managed independently. Finally, the research program should attempt an objective evaluation of the potential contribution of GE technology and other methods for solving the various supply, access, and other problems confronting forest management in the future.
The report recommends creation of an interagency Genetically Engineered Organism Council made up of the three agencies now charged with regulating these organisms -- USDA APHIS, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration -- as well as agencies responsible for protection of our environment and living natural resources. A parallel non-governmental advisory body should be established to involve critics of genetic engineering technologies as well as scientists independent of both camps. The Council and advisory committee should be charged with developing a broad management strategy. The precedent for this council is that established in 1999 to address the similar challenges posed by invasive alien or exotic species.
"American Lands calls on corporations and international funding entities to honor a moratorium on planting GE trees commercially until adequate research and regulatory bodies are in place," said Campbell.
Copies of the report can be obtained from American Lands' web site at http://www.Americanlands.org/GEtrees.htm