Month: July 2001


Those Niggling Questions

I have some practical observations and a few reasonable guesses about the death of Carlo Giuliani in Genoa on July 20, amidst the anti-G8 riots. From looking at the Reuters photos, it’s obvious to see that the caribinieri vehicle was cornered, its front grill slammed against a concrete barrier, a large plank shoved into the passenger-side window by a demonstrator. Other protesters were throwing rocks through the back and right-side windows of the vehicle.

It was a bad situation. My martial arts training has taught me that in a fight, one should always give the opponent a way to retreat, or else expect him or her to use the deadliest force he or she can manage. That’s basic fight psychology. If one of the passengers hadn’t shot at Giuliani out the back window and therefore cleared an escape route, the driver certainly would have backed into three, four, five, or six protesters behind him, possibly killing more than one person.

On the other hand, Carlo Giuliani was a local guy who was there with other local friends. These folks probably had no experience of the street battles in Prague, Quebec, or Goteburg, and very likely hadn’t discussed tactics much beforehand. Did they know that Genoa’s police force hadn’t bothered to stock up on rubber bullets, relying exclusively on lethal lead ones? Did they know when to back off in the name of self-preservation? Did they understand that the police themselves weren’t the real target? Or did the police become the target after a morning of cops turning water cannons and truncheons on otherwise peaceful demonstrators? Carlo and his friends certainly saw scores of peaceful people (including photographers and journalists) led or carried away with bleeding head wounds from police batons.

In addition, there’s a type of psychological and physical call-and-response on the street in these situations. Even in Seattle, we saw it: police firing tear gas canisters and protesters picking up those canisters and throwing them back. In an earlier photo of the caribinieri vehicle–taken just before the Reuters sequence–it looks as if the fire extinguisher was hurled out of the back of the jeep at the demonstrators to try and make them move away from the back of the jeep. This is disturbing and tragic: how much of Carlo’s actions in picking up the fire extinguisher and trying to throw it into the rear window of the jeep were because of simple, unthinking call-and-response?

The Case against GE Trees

Scientists who are working to develop genetically engineered poplar trees argue that they’re helping to save native forests and the environment. Their argument is this: if poplar trees can be planted and harvested on agricultural land–like a corn crop, for example–this will reduce the drive to cut native forests for wood pulp.

Undeniably, the market for wood pulp, which is used to make paper, tissue, and cardboard, is enormous. Nearly half of the wood cut for commercial, industrial use goes for paper production and half that amount is used for packaging. Junk mail accounts for another large chunk of paper production. In the US alone, each person on average uses more than 800 pounds of paper per year. While some of it is recycled and a tiny amount is made of easily renewable sources like hemp, most paper products are made from wood pulp–trees that have been logged from private tree farms and public lands.

So the impetus should be to cut back on our use of packaging and junk mail and to demand that paper and cardboard be made from cheaper, easily renewable plants and not from trees. But that’s not what forestry reps and bioscientists are doing.

The timber industry has selected poplar trees for the pulp farms of the future because they’re fast-growing. In addition, their genetic code is simple and their cellular DNA is relatively easy to modify in the lab. They can therefore be genetically modified, grown, and tested within a much shorter timeframe than other trees.

The GE research at the University of Washington and Oregon State University is focused on producing four new traits in poplar trees: herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, low-lignin production, and sterility. Let’s take each of these four traits and discuss them critically.

First, it’s important to remember that these trees will be grown in tree farms, which are generally sterile environments. The average tree farm looks nothing like a native forest. There is no understory; most undergrowth is tilled under or killed with herbicides to prevent brush from competing with the trees for water and soil nutrients. Wildlife is sparse, since there is no ground or brush cover and very little food for small mammals and insects–except, of course, insects that eat tree foliage. Tree farms have a vast need for herbicides and pesticides.

GE researchers claim that engineering poplars to have pest resistance will cut down on the use of pesticides. The gene that they’re using is the Bt toxin gene that’s been used in GE cotton. Researchers hope that inserting several different strains of the Bt gene into poplars will provide a broad resistance to leaf-eating beetles that are susceptible to the toxin. The problem, however, is that the insect life cycle is shorter than a tree’s life cycle–many, many generations of beetles eat, reproduce, die, and are born again before a fast-growing poplar tree can be planted, grow, and mature to harvest. Within that 10-year timeframe, Bt resistant beetles will develop and Bt sensitive beetles will disappear. Pesticides will eventually be necessary, perhaps sooner than GE researchers think.

Researchers at OSU and the UW are developing poplars with herbicide tolerance to Monsanto’s Round-up (glyphosate). Notably, poplars and other cottonwood trees need moist soil and prefer riparian zones near streams and lakes. Tree farms with fast-growing poplars will need a lot of water and will likely be located near salmon streams or will be irrigated from salmon streams. If planted on hillsides to control soil erosion (as researchers suggest), runoff from poplar tree farms will drain into salmon streams.

Round-up (glyphosate) is water soluble and notoriously harmful to fish and aquatic wildlife. Aquatic birds may face a double whammy: exposure to glyphosate and the disappearance of the fish they need in order to eat and feed their young.

In addition, poplars need “competition-free sites for seedling establishment,” which means repeated herbicide use will be necessary to destroy undergrowth. Timber companies will demand maximum growth to make maximum profits, and that means destroying as much competition from undergrowth as possible. If poplar farms are planted on hillsides, the lack of undergrowth will mean more erosion of topsoil, not less, and will bring a concomitant fouling of salmon streams.

Lignin is the substance within the cell walls of trees and other woody plants that allow them to maintain their structure and strength. Lignin, however, has to be removed from wood pulp in order to make paper. The process involved is expensive, employs lots of heat and chemicals, and produces chemical pollution. There’s a way to avoid this process, but it would involve abandoning pulp mills, ceasing to cut trees for paper, and the bankruptcy of many timber and chemical companies.

It would mean converting from wood pulp to using low-lignin, annual plant crops like hemp, kenaf, corn stalks, and grain chaff. It would be cheaper in the long run to convert to plant fiber than to continue expensive genetic research on trees. But the prospect of converting makes Weyerhaeuser, Georgia Pacific, Boise Cascade, DuPont, International Paper, James River, and Monsanto all tremble with trepidation. In their minds it’s better to fuss around with tree genes, especially if you can get public universities and the federal government to pay some of the research costs.

Engineering sterility into trees is theoretically possible, but is complex and far from complete. Failure of the sterility process is also possible. Ominously, OSU researchers write: “demonstrating sterility in the field, and over a sufficient number of years and environments to convince skeptics that it is working ‘adequately,’ may be challenging. However, if regulators could agree to a plan for monitoring, and if all the major parties agreed that minor breakdowns in sterility during this adaptive research phase do not present significant environmental harms, then sterility is ready to be used in large field trials today–perhaps leading directly to commercial uses if stable phenotypes are observed.” [Strauss, et. al.–see sources below.] In other words, let’s plant the trees right now; if they reproduce and spread into the wild, oh well. We’ll be monitoring them, so it’s okay.

It’s not okay. The only agency that monitors genetically engineered trees is the US Department of Agriculture, which is staffed by former industry types and people seeking better paying jobs in agribusiness. The USDA is ardently pro-GE, going so far as to sue other nations before the WTO over bans on genetically engineered crops grown in the US.

Finally, the worst objection to the use of GE poplars is that they won’t be grown exclusively in the US. Tree farms are becoming common all over the world, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere. Fast growing poplars and GE eucalyptus trees (also grown for wood pulp) suck more water and nutrients from the soil than diverse, native forests or farms that grow complementary crops or grow crops in rotation. When soil is depleted, tree farms move to new locations, displacing food crops from rich agricultural land. Displaced farmers are then forced to cut down native forests–often on steep hillsides–to create more farm land. This begins a vicious cycle of erosion and impoverishment.

Don’t be fooled by slick rhetoric that GE poplars will save old growth or hardwood forests. Poplars are grown for pulp; hardwoods are cut for other reasons–to provide wood for furniture and building materials, among other reasons. Growing more poplars will not save one Pacific Northwest cedar, California redwood, or Brazilian teak. Only switching to plant-based alternatives will make a difference.

–Maria Tomchick

Sources for this article include: “Genetically Modified Trees: A Global Threat,” Native Forest Network, Special Report–March 2000, PO Box 57, Burlington, VT 05402, 802-863-0571,,; “The Taming of the Poplar,” Patrick O’Neill, The Oregonian, 12/8/99; “Genetically modified poplars in context,” Steven H. Strauss, Stephen P. DiFazio, and Richard Meilan of Oregon State University, published in The Forestry Chronicle, Vol. 77, No. 2, March/April 2001; The Biotechnology Action Network at; Biotech Watch at; and the Indigenous People’s Action Network at; Biotech Watch at ; and the Indigenous People’s Council on BioColonialism at

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