The GE Debate: Global Concern Sparked by Brazil’s New Policy

But tree genetics technology is changing rapidly

Wed 24 Apr 24


Alarmed that Brazil has legalised seven varieties of genetically engineered eucalyptus trees, which could devastate their forests, Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations (IPUN) has denounced the threat of GE trees for their forests and biodiversity.

Indigenous peoples’ territories include 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

IPUN says GE trees could potentially irreversibly impact forests and biodiversity, such as massive land grabs and expropriation of territories, displacement of communities, violation of human rights, depleted and contaminated water, increased risk of forest fires, and destruction of native forests.

“GMO trees threaten the way of life, ancestral knowledge and food systems of Indigenous Peoples,” says Gustavo Campo, secretary of the National Commission of Indigenous Territories of Colombia.

“Five of the seven GMO trees that Brazil has legalised are genetically modified to be resistant to the toxic herbicide glyphosate that was sprayed on the Colombian Amazon with devastating impacts for indigenous communities in the region,” says Mr Campo.

Casey Camp-Horinek, the Environment Ponca Nation ambassador, has called for the immediate holt of GMO trees.

Everything that has to be done has to be done … now. The urgency is here,” said the distinguished Indigenous elder and actor based in Oklahoma.

“Who has the foolishness [and] ugliness to take the seed from this relative and alter it in whatever manner they choose and whatever way those laboratories allow them?

“It hurts how these humans are coming up with these false solutions to what they have created – what they call climate change,” Camp-Horinek said.

[The issue of GMO crops will be examined more closely at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 30) in the Amazonian city of Belém do Pará in 2025.]

Across this concern for the future of trees, the US-based non-profit National Academy of Sciences says genetic engineering could make ‘crops’ more resilient to climate change—but more research is still needed to understand the technology’s potential uses.

Genetically modified trees have sparked global debate with passionate support for and against GMO crops. Footage courtesy of @nowthisearth.

In a sweeping 400-page report, the scientific group found no evidence to support claims that genetically modified organisms are dangerous for the environment or human health. At the same time, the introduction of genetically engineered crops had little apparent influence on the rate at which agricultural productivity was increasing.

In the future, the academy said, researchers and regulators should be sure to evaluate the safety and efficacy of specific crops rather than focus on potential risks posed by modifying plants.

“The technology is changing rapidly, so we needed to see where it is taking us in the future,” said Fred Gould, a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University and chairman of the NAS Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops, which conducted the report.

The report looks at past research on and future potential of the often controversial application of genetic engineering to crops such as wheat and cotton.

Supporters of the technology say genetically engineered, or GE, crops are necessary to meet the nutritional demands of a growing global population. Opponents say the crops could pose environmental and health risks, particularly long-term.

Currently, most genetically modified crops commercially available have added traits that protect plants from pests and make them resistant to herbicides. However, the report suggests that the technology could be used more to address crop vulnerabilities to climate change by incorporating traits for drought resistance and heat and cold tolerance.

Professor Gould says, “Climate change will affect both the yields and the quality of produce in a number of ways.”

“Increased temperatures will speed crop development and thus limit potential yields. In colder climates, increased temperatures may extend the growing season, particularly of crops with indeterminate growth such as cotton.”

Armand Séguin, a research scientist in forest genomics with the Canadian Forest Service, planted his first genetically modified tree, a poplar, more than 20 years ago at a research station north of Quebec City. A few years later, it would be joined by hundreds of spruces designed to be immune to pests that kill them.

“To me, this wasn’t something we were planning to develop at a larger scale, but it was proof of a concept,” Mr Séguin said. “We proved that it was feasible.”

Mr Séguin inserted bacterial DNA into spruces that effectively made them immune to spruce budworm, a pest that can chew needles off tens of millions of hectares of trees in a single outbreak.

While there is controversy over genetic engineering, some scientists say it could also help fight climate change by creating trees that grow bigger and faster, resist disease, and can even turn carbon into a stable white powder that falls to the ground—in other words, trees that would be better at pulling carbon from the atmosphere.

“Now there are solutions where you can genetically modify organisms to reduce the use of chemicals and improve carbon sequestration, not only by improving photosynthesis but by making those plants more resilient to the environment,” Mr Séguin says.

“Long-term goals can be set to secure forests that will be genetically improved.”

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Lucy Sharratt … the pressing challenge of climate change has made trees and forests a focal point for reducing atmospheric carbon. (Photo Credit: Canadian Biotechnology Action Network)

Some of the concerns surrounding genetic engineering include environmental risks, broad claims of safety and a lack of public involvement,” says Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, which monitors and raises awareness about issues relating to genetic engineering in food and farming.

“Plantations consisting of trees with accelerated growth rates would be a huge, dangerous experiment that threatens forest ecosystems,” Dr Sharratt said.

“But the pressing challenge of climate change has made trees and forests a focal point for reducing atmospheric carbon.”

In a recent report, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a US-based think-tank that makes policy recommendations for areas of innovation like biotechnology, said that genetically enhancing trees as carbon sinks could help curb climate change.

“There are a lot of different ways in which forests could be made to be better carbon sinks,” said Val Giddings, a geneticist and senior fellow at the foundation. “But perhaps at the top of the list, I would offer up gene editing.”


  • Jim Bowden

    Jim Bowden, senior editor and co-publisher of Wood Central. Jim brings 50-plus years’ experience in agriculture and timber journalism. Since he founded Australian Timberman in 1977, he has been devoted to the forest industry – with a passion.


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