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Industry Hype & Bad Science Undercuts Real Energy/Climate Solutions
April 9th, 2014

Genetically Engineering Poplars for Paper and Biofuels Condemned

Biofuelwatch, Center for Food Safety, Global Justice Ecology Project, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

Washington, DC--Scientists and environmentalists today condemned a recent press release by researchers at the University of British Columbia announcing they have created genetically engineered (GE) poplar trees for paper and biofuel production, opening the prospect of growing these GE trees like an agricultural crop in the future. [1] 

The poplars were genetically engineered for altered lignin composition to supposedly make them easier to process into paper and biofuels. Groups, however, warn that manipulation of lignin, and the potential contamination of wild poplars with the GE trait, could be extremely dangerous. [2]

Lignin is a key structural component of plant cell walls and a major component of soils. [3] It is also the product of millions of years of natural selection favoring sturdy, healthy and resilient plants. Contamination from GE poplars with altered lignin could have devastating effects on forests, ecosystems, human communities and biodiversity.

Poplars include at least 30 species, are widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere [4] and have a high potential for genetic dispersal. [5]

“Because poplar trees generate so much pollen and seed that can travel so far, poplars genetically engineered for paper or biofuels are likely to inevitably and irreversibly contaminate native forests,” stated Anne Petermann, Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project.  “The only way to prevent this potential ecological disaster is to stop the release of GE trees.”

Martha Crouch, PhD, a plant biologist consulting for the Center for Food Safety is likewise concerned.  “The reports that genetic engineers have restructured poplar wood to make it easier to process into biofuels makes it sound as if this technology is right around the corner. However, no ecological studies have been done yet, and methods for keeping genes from escaping into forests are unproven and likely to fail. All of this hype distracts us from truly sustainable solutions that work safely with what nature has already provided,” she concluded.

Commercial and industrial scale biofuels and bioenergy are creating vast new demands for wood, and driving the conversion of climate stabilizing forests and other natural ecosystems to fuel crops.  Rainforests in Indonesia are being burned to make way for plantations of oil palm, for example. Genetically engineering trees to be easier to manufacture into bioenergy will further contribute to the problem by increasing economic pressure to convert land into GE tree plantations.

Rachel Smolker, PhD, Co-Director of Biofuelwatch adds, “The whole idea of engineering trees for biofuels is outrageous. There is no question that we must end our fossil fuel addiction, but pretending we can simply substitute living plants is horribly misguided. Even the tiny fraction of fuel currently produced from industrial bioenergy has had huge impacts on forests, water, human rights and food security. Forests purify water and regulate the climate.  They are home to most of the world’s biodiversity and many Indigenous Peoples. We need to protect and restore forests while drastically reducing overconsumption. Engineering trees is moving in exactly the wrong direction.” 

Contact:

Dr. Rachel Smolker, Biofuelwatch, +1.802.482.2848  rsmolker@riseup.net

Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project, +1.802.578.0477 globalecology@gmavt.net

Abigail Seiler, Center for Food Safety, +1.202.547.9359 aseiler@centerforfoodsafety.org

Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, +1.613.809.1103 coordinator@cban.ca

Notes to Editors:

[1] “Researchers design trees that make it easier to produce paper” http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-04/uobc-rdt040314.php

[2] Biofuelwatch http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/,

Canadian Biotechnology Action Network http://www.cban.ca/,

Center for Food Safety http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/,

Global Justice Ecology Project http://globaljusticeecology.org/

[3] Lignin Biosynthesis: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.arplant.54.031902.134938

[4] American Journal of Botany, http://www.amjbot.org/content/91/9/1398.full

[5] “Transgene escape -Global atlas of uncontrolled spread of genetically engineered plants” http://www.testbiotech.org/sites/default/files/Testbiotech_Transgene_Escape.pdf

For More Information:

“Genetically Engineered Trees: The New Frontier of Biotechnology”Center for Food Safety, http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/ge_pages_final_nov-1_80728.pdf.

“Genetically Engineered Trees and Bioenergy: A Growing Threat to Forests and Communities” – Global Justice Ecology Project http://globaljusticeecology.org/files/Analysis%20of%20the%20State%20of%20GE%20Trees%20May%202013.pdf

“Wood Bioenergy: Green Land Grabs For Dirty ‘Renewable’ Energy” – Biofuelwatch http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2013/2013-wood-bioenergy-report/

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