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Genetically Altered Trees and Global Warming Financed by World Bank with UN Approval

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The United Nations, the World Bank, GE Trees and Global Warming ,from Anne Petermann, Co-Director of the Global Justice Ecology Project.

Rams Horn Magazine Editors note: The Kyoto Protocol on climate change seemed like a fine idea when the Convention on Climate Change was formulated in 1992. The Protocol, providing the specific recommendations for limiting climate change, had enough signatures to become formalized in 1994. It required ratification, however, by a specific number of high-polluting countries and this was not achieved until Russia ratified the Protocol this month (5 November, 2004.) Canada and the USA have not ratified the treaty .

Over the past decade, however, more and more concern has been expressed about the adequacy or actual consequences of various provisions of the Protocol. Forests as carbon sinks, and the provision for high-polluting countries to acquire off-setting carbon sinks in the form of forests elsewhere in the world rather than actually cutting their emissions, is now being harshly criticized……

When the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change last December agreed that Genetically Engineered (GE) Trees could be used in carbon offset forestry plantations, forest protection advocates around the world came together to launch a campaign to demand the UN ban GE trees.

These forestry plantations are included in the Kyoto Protocol under loopholes called “Flexible Mechanisms.” These mechanisms include trading in carbon credits, as well as Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism. The CDM allows for private corporations and Northern countries to invest in forestry plantations in developing countries and consequently receive credits for the carbon absorption from these projects.

The United Nations has been involved in the promotion of genetically engineered trees since at least 1990, when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) provided support to the Chinese Academy of Forestry to help them get started on research into genetically engineered (GE) poplar trees. The United Nations Development Project provided $1.8 million to fund the project.

This investment has paid off in the planting of 1.4 million GE hybrid poplar and GE Populus nigra trees in an uncontrolled experiment in China. The trees have been engineered for insect resistance. This means the trees produce the bacterial toxin Bt, and any insect, beneficial or pest, that uses the tree will die.

Now the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is teaming up with the World Bank’s Prototype Carbon Fund (PCF) to magnify this disastrous experiment throughout the developing world. By approving GE trees for use in carbon offset forestry plantations, the UN has opened the door to World Bank funding for these plantations. The inevitable contamination of native forests with engineered pollen from GE tree plantations will have a host of negative impacts both for communities located in or near adjacent forests and for the wildlife of these forests. Even non-GE plantations have proven disastrous for nearby communities.

While the World Bank insists that its Prototype Carbon Fund was designed to help alleviate poverty and promote development, Ken Newcomb, Senior Manager of the World Bank’s Carbon Finance Business reveals that the real motive for their involvement is to “reduce the risk for private investors.” The Prototype Carbon Fund’s largest carbon offset forestry plantation project, called Plantar, is in Brazil. While not a GE tree plantation, Plantar has nonetheless come under fire from the Rural Workers Union and others from Minais Gerais, where the plantations are located.

Monoculture tree plantations are incredibly water intensive, stealing water needed by nearby communities for agriculture. Because the plantations are all the same species, they are extremely vulnerable to attacks by insects and disease. In China, it was infestations by insects in non-GE monoculture plantations that led them to implement insect-resistant GE trees. While this program is called “reforestation,” monoculture tree plantations are not forests. One look at the straight and silent rows of identical trees with no understory plants and very little wildlife confirms that industrial tree plantations have as much in common with forests as commercial corn fields.

“No Ground Vegetation”: Photographs of GM trees in China (May 2003) by Dietrich Ewald, a German forestry scientist, are available at

Additionally, evidence suggests that development of monoculture tree plantations actually contributes to global warming. A look at satellite maps from ten years ago compared to images today reveal a clear trend of plantations being developed where not long ago native forests stood. Add to this studies done by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the World Resources Institute that found that in tropical areas plantations at best sequester only 1/4 the carbon as native forests. In other words, conversion of native forests to plantations diminishes carbon sequestering potential. The addition of genetically engineered trees to the mix leads to forest health crises in the world’s remaining native forests that will further exacerbate global warming.

In addition to insect resistance, trees are being genetically engineered for herbicide resistance, reduced lignin, faster growth and sterility. Experience with agricultural crops indicates that trees engineered for herbicide resistance will lead to increased applications of chemicals such as glyphosate (Monsanto’s “Round Up” pesticide) on the land, causing water contamination, as well as toxic effects on wildlife and nearby human populations. (see Benbrook report p. 7, issue #225,

Lignin protects trees, giving them rigidity. It is removed to make paper. Reducing lignin causes increased tree mortality from disease, insect infestation and animal browsing.Dead low-lignin trees also rot faster, releasing CO 2 more rapidly, contributing to global warming. Faster growing tree plantations cause rapid depletion of groundwater and desertification of soils resulting in the clearing of more native forests for new plantations.. . .

Because of the potential for GE trees to contaminate native forests and increase forest conversion, they have no place in sustainable forest management practices that maintain healthy forest ecosystems. Additionally, because these plantations destroy the delicate balance of native forests and deplete ground water as well as potentially disbursing toxic pollen, they have the potential to devastate communities that are culturally and economically dependent on healthy native forests.

In sum, development of GE tree plantations cannot help abate global warming. Proposals by the UN and the World Bank for carbon offset forestry plantations, especially those that include GE trees, must be opposed.

Anne Petermann is Co-Director of the Global Justice Ecology Project. To join the campaign, contact:

#225: November 2004 TOC

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