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Genetically Engineering Trees for Biofuel Undermines Real Energy and Climate Solutions
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.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
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 that trait, could be extremely dangerous.
Lignin is a key structural component of plant cell walls and a major component of soils. It is also the product of millions of years of natural selection favoring sturdy, healthy and resilient plants. GE poplars with altered lignin could have devastating effects on forests, ecosystems, human communities and biodiversity.
"Because they can spread their seed and pollen 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," Crouch 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.
"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,” said Rachel Smolker, PhD, co-director of Biofuelwatch added. “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,” Smolker continued. “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."
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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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