Crown Research Institute Scion’s claim that its research shows that GE trees are environmentally safe is seriously misleading, according to the Soil & Health Association of NZ.
Soil & Health also believes that aspects of the GE pine tree field trial at Rotorua were continuously in breach of consent conditions and international obligations, for the trial’s entire life.
Scion has issued a media report stating that its research based on its field trial shows no gene transference into insects and micro-organisms by GE trees and consequently genetically engineered trees are safe.
“Scion’s prematurely terminated research is incomplete in design, unfinished, and unpublished in a peer reviewed journal,” said Soil & Health spokesperson Steffan Browning. “Without good design and an appropriate research period, followed by publication in a peer reviewed journal, how can a CRI make credible claims?”
In respect of concerns that modified genes could be inadvertently transferred from transgenic plants, into the wider environment, Scion chief executive Dr Tom Richardson had said, “In the case of this trial, our results show that this did not occur. The trial has been monitored for nearly five years and there is no evidence of gene transfer into other organisms, or negative impact in the soil environment or insect population in and around the trial site.”
Monitoring at the site is intended for another two years following removal of the trees in the next few weeks, aimed at detecting any potential gene transfer.
“For Scion to say that there was no horizontal gene transfer (HGT) following a primitive and short term study of only 5 years so far, is naïve or even duplicitous, certainly misleading” said Mr Browning.
Canterbury University School of Biological Sciences Professor Jack Heinemann (1), has asked, “Given that it would take all 6 billion people on earth, working in parallel, 30 thousand years to properly demonstrate no transgene transfer from those trees to just soil bacteria (much less all the other organisms in the environment) how did this independent research achieve a previously impossible detection capacity?”
“Scion’s attempts to vindicate incomplete research is more likely a ploy to satisfy its giant US dominated GE forest partner ArborGen’s multi-million dollar investment in Scion, and to urgently satisfy Government concerns about key recommendations by the Royal Commission into Genetic Modification not being met,” said Mr Browning. “Other claims made by Scion also lack credibility
A recent report by think-tank Sustainable Future, analysing key recommendations by the Royal Commission into Genetic Modification, found that some recommendations accepted by government yet not implemented, and requiring significant policy work, included
6.12 That the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) requires research on environmental impacts on soil and ecosystems before release of genetically modified crops is approved.
7.4 That, in connection with any proposal to develop genetically modified forest trees, an ecological assessment be required to determine the effects of the modification on the soil and environmental ecology, including effects on soil micro-organisms, weediness, insect and animal life, and biodiversity.
The authors of the Sustainable Future review also think that New Zealand may be in breach of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity: that is, the research currently undertaken by Scion is using GM sterility traits (often referred to as terminator technology or more technically as Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs)).
New Zealand had undertaken to have the UN position changed but following worldwide condemnation of GURTs in 2006, then Environment Minister David Benson-Pope said that New Zealand fully supported the consensus agreement reached by the international Working Group on genetic use restriction technologies (GURTs) and supports further research on the impacts of GURTs.
“If Scion’s short term research is portrayed as also saying GURTs in trees are safe in the environment, then New Zealand will be open to worldwide riducule,” said Mr Browning.
“Soil & Health has raised critical non-compliance issues at Scion in December 2007, with MAF Biosecurity NZ (MAF-BNZ) the compliance auditors potentially allowing GE pollen release. The trees were never trimmed to the 2m hedge, making pollen detection all the more difficult.”
The Environmental Risk Management Authority in its pre hearing assessment (2) had stated, “ERMA New Zealand considers that it is likely that some pollen may be inadvertently shed during the trials due to reproductive structures not being removed (either by being missed or not being recognised) prior to maturity.,” and in its approval of the Scion field trial had stipulated, “To facilitate detection and removal of reproductive structures, all genetically modified trees shall be trimmed to maintain a 2m lower “hedge” with a single leader growing to a maximum height of 5m.”
Scion chief executive Dr Tom Richardson stated,” The results from this research trial support the argument that genetically modified trees are low-risk and can be safely introduced into the environment, without having a negative effect on other organisms.”
“However a very few years of trial is grossly inadequate to make such a sweeping statement of environmental safety.” said Mr Bowning, “It would seem commercial imperatives are the stronger in Scion’s objectives. Dr Richardson would do well to remember that his role is on a New Zealand Crown Research Institute and the New Zealand environment must come before investment partner ArborGen’s dreams of global forestry and biofuel domination.”
“New Zealand forestry company Rubicon as a third share holder in ArborGen is also implicated in the mad rush to plant large scale GE eucalypt plantations in the USA and Brazil. These commercial imperatives are blocking good science and precaution and New Zealand must take a stand against the risk of global ecological disaster.”
“Poor science with a New Zealand label also has the potential to ruin the clean green reputation that New Zealand’s primary production and tourism currently enjoys.”
“Considering overwhelming opposition to genetic engineering in New Zealand, field trials should be treated as a privilege and run to the highest level of precaution.”
Soil & Health has a vision of an Organic 2020 and is opposed to GE in food and environment.
(1) Heinemann, J.A., and T. Traavik. 2004. Problems in monitoring horizontal gene transfer in field trials of transgenic plants. Nat. Biotechnol. 22:1105-1109.
(2) The length of the field trial
The proposed field trials will last for up to 20 years, although individual trees will only be grown in the trial site for between three and ten years. The genetically modified trees will not be grown for the normal duration that can be expected in a commercial plantation. Consequently, the proposed field trials will not provide an opportunity for complete evaluation of the genetically modified trees over their expected life span.
The most important risks with this application are those associated with the possible escape of pollen. Unless very strict containment is maintained, it would be prudent to assume that there are significant risks from cross pollination with trees outside of the trial. The risk is compounded from two factors. The first is the long duration of the trial (20 years) with the increased number of opportunities this represents for the inadvertent development and release of pollen. ERMA New Zealand considers that it is likely that some pollen may be inadvertently shed during the trials due to reproductive structures not being removed
(either by being missed or not being recognised) prior to maturity. The second is uncertainty about the viability and spread of the pollen once released, as little information is available on this. Other consequences of pollen release will depend on whether the genetically modified pollen has increased toxicity or allergenicity. Testing will be required to determine this.
Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) to soil microorganisms
Given current knowledge about HGT, it is considered likely that some horizontal gene transfer to soil microorganisms may occur. HGT, if it occurs is unlikely to just involve the genetically modified material so that this issue needs to be considered in a broader context. The key issue in relation to HGT is the consequence of the gene transfer which depends on the function of the material transferred. There is considerable scientific uncertainty about the effects of such transfer and the proposed trial offers opportunities for further research in this area.
Unanticipated host-gene expression
It is possible that some unanticipated effects may result from the genetic modifications due to the method of introducing the foreign genetic material. The magnitude of such alterations are uncertain, although some may be detected during the laboratory phase, and some can be specifically tested for. Such unanticipated changes need to be considered in the context of the potential for natural variation in gene expression in plants due to the plant propagation techniques.