Thursday, November 27, 2008

England’s plan for GM trees, and the possible ramifications

Another one of our weekly guest posts from Jonathan Javitt:

A group of researchers from the University of Southampton are hoping to establish a settlement of genetically modified poplar trees on land owned by the Forestry Commission as part of a research project into biofuels. Sounds good on its face – modified trees that may help us solve some of our oil dependency problems. But it’s not that easy. The truth is, these trees would present a whole other set of problems.

Clare Oxborrow, A campaigner for the eco-friendly organization, Friends of the Earth, explains the potential problems: “Our concerns with GM trees are even more serious than crops because trees are very long-lived. They are inherently geared up for spreading seeds and pollen because of the way they reproduce. There’s a huge potential for cross-pollination. It could have a really negative impact and cause widespread ecological damage.”

The proposed plantation would be the first attempt to cultivate genetically modified trees in Britain since 1999, when activists destroyed 115 plants. Those particular trees were super-trees – they had been modified to grow at four times the rate of a normal tree. That means they used more oxygen, more resources(what resources?), and could reproduce and pollinate faster. Campaigners have said that they will fight the new, similar plan amid warnings that allowing the move to go ahead would be “an unknown and worrying risk” for Britain’s ecosystems.

Meanwhile, eco-organizations are cautioning that the government should think carefully before giving the project the go-ahead. As I talk about in Capitol Reflections - and as with any scheme involving genetic modification - there is no doubt much more than meets the eye, and many serious issues to consider, on both sides of the argument. True, my book is fiction but many of the debates and issues raised in it are things that are happening on the forefront of the genetically modified foods movement. The American people as a whole need to be made more aware of this movement as we address issues like the one mentioned above.

Jonathan Javitt is a physician and scientist who has served as a senior White House health adviser in the past three presidential administrations. He currently serves as Senior Fellow in the National Security Health Policy Center. Visit his site ( and his first book, Capitol Reflections is on sale on

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