A Silent Forest – The Growing Threat of Genetically Engineered Trees (GE/GMO)
This award winning documentary film explores the growing global threat of genetically engineered trees to our environment and to human health. The film features renowned geneticist and host of PBS’ The Nature of Things David Suzuki, who explores the unknown and possibly disastrous consequences of improperly tested GE methods. Many scientists and activists are interviewed in the film, which serves as an effective and succinct tool for understanding the complex issue of GE trees. The film includes the testimony of many experts on the subject and serves as a valuable tool to inform students and those interested in environmental issues. The film has been well used in public forums, government as well as college and high school classrooms.The film includes an interview with Percy Schmeiser, who lost the rights to his own crops to Monsanto, when Monsanto seeds contaminated his fields. As Schmeiser says in the film:
“It doesn’t matter how it gets there, destroying your crop. All of your crop, becomes Monsanto’s ownership and they can lay a lawsuit on top of it against you. Even if the contamination rate is 1%, all your other 99% of your crop goes to Monsanto. And that’s what startled the world, how farmers can lose their rights overnight, an organic farmer can lose his seeds and his rights overnight, and get subject to a lawsuit.”
The film shows how farmers like Schmeiser and indigenous people may lose their way of life and belongings in the face of new biotech friendly science and legislation. A Silent Forest won first place in the EarthVision Environmental Film Festival and a First Place in the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival. The film is created by award-winning director Ed Schehl who has been making and promoting documentaries on environmentalism and social justice for 15 years. As new crucial forms of legislation and urgent needs for action arise, this film makes information available to the general public.
Review of “A Silent Forest: The Growing Threat, Genetically Engineered Trees”
by Sam Burcher
A film that exposes the growing global threat of genetically modified trees and the startling impact of genetic engineering on biodiversity.
GM IS SCIENCE GONE WRONG
David Suzuki of David Suzuki Foundation is a geneticist who has enjoyed a twenty-five year career in science that includes heading the largest genetics laboratory in Canada. He agreed to narrate A Silent Forest because he is deeply concerned about the unseemly haste in applying ideas from genetic engineering to the real world. He believes that it is far too early to put genetically modified (GM) traits into medicines, and foods, or in our fields.
DNA taken from one species and inserted into another species, is horizontal gene transfer, and is the basis of genetic engineering. Suzuki is adamant that it is simply bad science for the pro-GM lobby to imply that horizontal gene transfer is the same process as the fundamental exchange of male and female genes, which is known as vertical inheritance.
“ONE GENE, ONE PROTEIN, EQUALS ONE TRAIT”
This is the favoured theory used by genetic engineers to explain the process of artificial selection, and is, according to Suzuki, “a caricature of misrepresentation.” In nature, genes function within the context of an entire genome, and within a whole organism. (See: Living with the Fluid Genome)
Genetic engineering alters the context in which the gene is found. It’s new and complex, and yields unexplained results. Suzuki’s example is to take the singer Bono out of his band U2, and putting him into the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. There would be sound, but there is no way of predicting how precise, or what the sum total of the activity would be.
ARE GM TREES REAL?
Genetically modified trees are not science fiction, Suzuki says. There are hundreds and possibly thousands of GM tree test plots all over the world. (See: UN Caution Against GM trees). GM DNA is inserted into the embryos of plants usually using a bacterium or virus. These genes would be extracted from an unrelated organism, whose transfer could never happen naturally, or, by hybridisation.
The four design parameters of GM trees:
Sterile trees – produce no nuts, fruits, seeds, flowers, or pollen. This drastic intervention, it is hoped, will stop the cross contamination of native trees and other species, via insects, and wind blown pollination.
Herbicide resistant trees – can be sprayed with company herbicide and survive, but many other plants and species die.
Low lignin trees – has had half it’s strength removed. It grows faster, and is cheaper and easier for the paper industry to pulp. But it is vulnerable to environmental stresses such as high winds. Once fallen, it decomposes quicker, returning C02 to the atmosphere at an accelerated timescale.
Total tree a pesticide – this tree is a systemic toxin that kills all insects that feed on it, with no specific target, and no limit as to what is harmed.
ENVIRONMENTAL EFFECTS OF GM TREES
Sterility bred into plants and trees is no guarantee that cross-pollination stops happening. One hundred percent sterility is impossible, as the urge to reproduce is powerful. This technology can never be reliable; sterility can be spread into food crops and into native forests. Forests that cannot sustain insects and animals through its’ harvest, are not forest at all.
Herbicide resistance is also problematic. The number one herbicide in the US is Monsanto’s Roundup Ready. When liberally and/or aerially sprayed on GM crops and trees many plants in its path are killed, but so are earthworms and small mammals. Fish, frogs, and aquatic invertebrates are particularly sensitive to it. Roundup contains Glyphosate, a chemical known to cause birth defects and allergic effects (See: Glyphosate toxic and Roundup worse)
In California, there has been an increase of illness in human outdoor workers who are using Roundup. Its effects on wildlife appear to be as lethal as DDT, which was considered an innovative chemical for pest control, until songbirds and eagles started to disappear. Denmark has had the foresight to ban glyphosate when it was found in drinking water.
Infecting the entire system of a tree with a toxin also harms many species. Monica Moore of PAN (Pesticide Action Network) points out that the pesticide gene is always “on” and expressing itself, and it cannot be turned off. She cautions that the insects that develop resistance to Bt, select similar insects, and produce superbugs. The film cites ISIS paper Superbugs and Anthrax genes, as a further warning of the potential hazards of Bt recombining with other bacteria genes in the soil.
WHAT HARM TO HUMANS AND ANIMALS?
Dr. Ignacio Chapela of Berkeley University says that Bt trees are a crazy idea. Trees have long life cycles, from between 50-100 years, and longer. Therefore putting toxins into every cell will affect insects and organisms for a very long time. Bt flows through the soil via the roots of GM trees (or GM corn) into the soil. This alters the microbial composition of the soil. From the soil it can leach into ground water and surface water. Where GM corn is grown, up to 5 times the safe limit of bt toxin is found in groundwater.
Dr. Maewan Ho (ISIS), on her lecture tour of the Philippines at the end of 2005, found that farmers exposed to Bt crops in 2003 are still battling with illnesses. (See: http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GMBanLongOverdue.php). Further illnesses in farm workers and handlers of Bt cotton, and mass deaths among sheep grazing in Bt cotton fields have now turned up in India.
WHO OWNS LIFE?
Percy Schmeiser features in the film and explains how Monsanto used him as a test case (Monsanto vs. Schmeiser), to gauge the legal implications of GM contamination. After two and a half weeks of trial, the judge ruled that it did not matter how GM particles got into his fields, e.g. by wind, buds, insects, passing truck. If even one percent of Schmiesers’ crop was contaminated by GM material, then it becomes the property of the corporation.
The “one gene, one protein” hypothesis automatically assumes ownership on behalf of the corporation who has made the GM plant, tree, or seed, and whatever it comes into contact with and contaminates. One gene ownership is a dangerous premise with the potential to control our entire natural environment. This includes parks, and wildernesses, and represents the privitization of life itself. In theory pollen drift from a GM test plot in Michigan could contaminate all the trees in North America.
IMPOVERISHING THE GLOBAL SOUTH
GM tree plantations are targeted at locations where labour and land is cheap. In countries such as Chile and Brazil an increasing amount of precious land and water is given over to GM plantations that destroy self-sufficient communities and ruin the lives of indigenous and rural people. (See “UN Caution over GM trees”) No serious consideration is given to the effects of GM trees on communities or ecosystems.
Alternative methods of paper production must be developed in order to eliminate the need for forest-based paper manufacturing. There are many examples of strong natural crops such as hemp from which paper could be made. Ethical choices by consumers can influence industry in this direction. A great deal of savings on paper use in advertising and packaging can also be made.
David Suzuki concludes his narration by saying that most of our current ideas involving biotechnology are going to turn out to be wrong. In any revolutionary areas, many ideas are proved wrong, and this is how progress is made. The rush to commercialise GM trees is absolutely dangerous because we haven’t a clue what the long-term implications of our manipulations will be.
You can order the “A Silent Forest” video from: www.CreateSpace.com