in Brazil

Genetically engineered eucalyptus trees approved in Brazil. How long before we see GE tree monocultures in REDD?

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On 9 April 2015, the Brazilian Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio) approved the commercial use of genetically engineered eucalyptus trees. This is the first approval of GE trees in Latin America. The application came from FuturaGene, a subsidiary of pulp and paper company, Suzano.

Paulo Pase de Andrade works in the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco. Until September 2012, he was a member of CTNBio. The day before CTNBio approved the release of GE eucalyptus, he wrote to the Campaign to STOP GE Trees, explaining that the decision had already been taken – the CTNBio meeting the following day was a technicality.

The CTNBio decision, Andrade explained, was based solely on the biological risks of GE eucalyptus. Andrade also sent a 23-page risk assessment (in Portuguese) of GE eucalyptus that he co-authored.

What CTNBio did not consider is that industrial tree plantations have serious social and environmental impacts. GE tree plantations intensify these impacts. Industrial tree plantations take up vast areas of land, land that is often already in use. Faster growing trees need more water, sucking streams dry and leaving less water for communities living nearby.

In March 2015, a meeting of CTNBio was occupied by 300 peasants from Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST). The decision to approve FuturaGene’s GE trees was postponed.

FuturaGene claims that because its GE eucalyptus trees grow faster, they absorb more carbon dioxide. Here’s Stanley Hirsch, FuturaGene’s chief executive, quoted in a 2014 article in Nature News & Comment:

The tree’s speedy growth boosts absorption of carbon dioxide from the air by about 12% … aiding in the fight to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Hirsch’s argument makes no sense, because the trees are clearcut and converted to short-lived paper products, at which point the carbon dioxide returns to the atmosphere.

But does the approval of GE trees in Brazil mean that we can now expect REDD payments to go to companies planting vast monocultures of genetically engineered eucalyptus trees? After all, business as usual would mean planting slower growing non-GE eucalyptus trees that would absorb less carbon dioxide.

As far as I am aware, the issue of GE trees has not been discussed during the UN climate negotiations on REDD. (If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know via the comments.)

Part of REDD, as agreed at the UN climate negotiations in Cancun (COP-16) in 2010, is “Enhancement of forest carbon stocks”.

Instead of REDD, perhaps GE tree plantations would be included in the clean development mechanism’s afforestation/reforestation methodologies. But because there is still no agreed definition of “forest” in the REDD negotiations, plantations (including GE tree plantations) are not explicitly excluded.

Of course, “safeguards” were also agreed in Cancun, including this one:

(e) That actions are consistent with the conservation of natural forests and biological diversity, ensuring that the actions referred to in paragraph 70 of this decision are not used for the conversion of natural forests, but are instead used to incentivize the protection and conservation of natural forests and their ecosystem services, and to enhance other social and environmental benefits;[1]

[1] Taking into account the need for sustainable livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities and their interdependence on forests in most countries, reflected in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the International Mother Earth Day.

But as I’ve previously pointed out on REDD-Monitor, the UN only encourages governments to “promote and support” the safeguards. This safeguard translates as follows:

Governments are encouraged to “promote and support” “actions” to conserve forests, biodiversity, and to ensure that REDD does not lead to clearcutting forests in order to replace them with industrial tree plantations.

None of this rules out clearcutting industrial tree plantations (as part of business as usual) and replacing them with industrial tree plantations of genetically engineered trees.

We can look forward to arguments about faster growing GE trees requiring less land to produce the same amount of timber, thus allowing more room for biodiversity and conservation. But given that Suzano plans to expand its pulp production from 1.92 million tons in 2013, to 3.42 million tons by 2015, these arguments don’t stand up. The plantations to feed Suzano’s expanding pulp production will require more and more land.

Clear definitions of “forests”, “deforestation” and “degradation” in the REDD negotiations could exclude the possibility of REDD payments going to monoculture GE tree plantations. But there are still no agreed definitions to differentiate rainforests from monoculture tree plantations (genetically engineered or otherwise) in the UNFCCC REDD negotiations.

PHOTO credit: Friends of the Earth Australia at the Brazilian Consulate in Melbourne, Australia.

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  1. Chris : interesting comments on Eucalyptus and GM. What I am not clear about is how GM Eucalyptus would differ in effects from non-GM as most of the impacts you describe are caused by the alien/introduced Eucalyptus currently cultivated in many areas of the world.

    Also the argument often made for intensive plantation production is that it replaces the demand for timber from natural/semi- natural forests and therefore reduces the pressure to harvest these forests. Do you consider this a sustainable argument (or practice) ?

  2. @Jeremy (#1) – Thanks for this. I agree that the impacts of GE eucalyptus plantations are pretty much the same as that non-GE eucalyptus. However, GE eucalyptus intensifies the problems, sucking out more water from the ground (because they are faster growing), for example.

    In 2004, I wrote a report about GE trees for World Rainforest Movement and Friends of the Earth International. One section looks at 10 of the myths put forward by GE tree proponents. Number 1 was the myth that “Faster growing GM trees will not help take pressure off native forests”. You can read it here.

  3. Thanks for info. It appears that most of the criticisms apply equally to intensive monoculture of genetically narrow provenances and lines of often alien species. However if we dont cultivate these how will we meet world demand for timber, more agricultural land and other land use demands from an exploding world population..?

  4. Assuming the GM trees crop as per label then said extra bulk will only help to increase market for wood pulp etc. This will increase the need to plant more such forests and, of course, to harvest such.
    Same as a wind farm, any wind farm never stopped a gram of coal/oil/gas being burned and, in fact, simply helps grow the energy market.
    To learn not to use is the hardest lesson, it seems – because no teacher can make any money in delivering the lesson nor company sell any new product as a result of that learning. The message is anti-market, anti growth and seems to need to find a whole new delivery mechanism.

  5. Nice sentiments – but even if we could stop (economic/market) growth, we still have to deal with an increasing population who will demand a reasonable standard of living and therefore sustain or increase demand for all resources. What is currently happening along the borders of the North is a symptom of this.

  6. @Chris hemmings. I think the evidence is against your assertions, re renewables.
    I’m not a fan of GMO’s, nor Eucalypts where water is in short supply, but strangely ,the growing of GE Eucalyptus in the wetter areas of Brazil, would negate the main concerns about both ,as there’re no native Eucalypts to transfer genes to. Although escapees might be able out compete natives and reduce biodiversity.

  7. Simon´s point is well made. The Mirtaceae in Brazil are genetically quite distant from Eucalyptus spp.
    I do wonder if these super-fast-growing trees would even flower before harvest…Here in Southern Brazil these days Eucalyptus plantations look more and more like row crops with longer growth cycles. Our most pressing issue is the expansion of GM-soybeans onto the (remaining) grasslands — almost 13 Mha grown this year, all time record!