GM trees – a fast growing field but with little information or regulation, says report

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net


Genetically modified (GM) trees have been engaging both last week’s COP-MOP 6 on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and COP-11 on the Convention on Biological Diversity. And Isis Alvarez, from the Global Forest Coalition, advises some caution in a paper that reviews GM tree research in Latin America and was circulated at a side event in the Hyderabad.

The first thought that occurred to me was: does Latin America need GM forest trees any more than India needs GM brinjal (eggplant)? But leaving that aside, countries see potential for biotechnology in the forestry sector, just as in agriculture.

According to Alvarez, most known experiments in Latin America include Eucalyptus species, but several firms are also working on poplars, pines, acacias and fruit trees. Private funding dominates GM tree research and genetic patents and so little information is available, Alvarez says.

Brazil leads, with 48 per cent of global patents in the sector, next only to the US with 53 per cent. Chile too has seen a rapid increase, with both private  sector as well organised consortia of academic and business institutions engaged in GM trees. Mexico has been working for some years on GM trees, and Colombia has expressed interest in working in the sector. So have Argentina and Uruguay.

Globally some 21 countries are working on GM trees, most notably China that is growing GM poplars, for reasons that include more timber, wood with less lignin which can be processed more easily, and pest resistance.

Alvarez’s paper, however, cautions that lack of information and lack of strong regulatory frameworks has been causing the GM trees industry to “escalate without any consideration to the environmental or social impacts, and with little or no oversight or monitoring from governments”.

Meanwhile the companies’ ambitions have risen national to international markets across South America; and southern markets in general given “the easy conditions” for expansion.

Partnerships with academic institutions are becoming increasingly popular and prospects look bright in view of the demand for wood and wood products; as well focus shifting to biofuel plantations.

GM trees are being brought under the purview of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, and the Hyderabad meeting last week made some progress on it. One needs to watch how things go from here.

This blog post is part of our coverage on COP 11 Convention on Biological Diversity — which takes place 8–19 October 2012. 

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