Trading in Forest Stewardship?

Forest Stewardship Council prepares to facilitate the global release of GE trees

The release of genetically engineered (GE or genetically modified) trees is closer than it has ever been. Ironically, it could be the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) — the organization that claims to “promote the responsible management of the world’s forests” through its certification program — that opens the door to the commercialization of GE trees.

Many paper products around the world carry the FSC logo, signifying compliance with the Forest Stewardship Council’s standards. At the moment, this logo means that FSC-certified companies are not allowed to commercially plant genetically engineered trees. However, FSC is preparing to revisit its prohibition on GE trees.

FSC’s international General Assembly starts this week in Bali, Indonesia. FSC members will discuss a proposal that would have FSC directly oversee outdoor field tests of genetically engineered trees. These experiments would be the core of a new “genetic engineering learning process.” However, genetic engineering remains controversial among FSC members, and environmental groups warn that the field tests themselves pose serious risks to forests.

Future of Forests, FSC at Stake

If FSC moves ahead with supervising field tests, they could be seen as responsible for any environmental impacts that could result. For instance, efforts to contain field trials can fail and could result in GE contamination of forests.

The stakes are high with any intended or unintended release of GE trees. A new report from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network and The Campaign to STOP GE Trees argues that GE contamination is inevitable, and that “genetically engineered trees present vast uncertainties and pose a wide range of new, unique risks to forests and other ecosystems.” For example, the report discusses how genetic engineering processes can result in unintended effects on trees. Even intended changes at the DNA level may impact the behaviour of trees in unexpected ways, such how trees respond to stresses like drought or extreme heat.

Trees and forests are highly complex, as is genetic engineering. Because there are so many gaps in our knowledge, environmental groups such as the World Rainforest Movement (WRM) argue that any release of genetically engineered trees would be a large-scale environmental experiment. “The consequences would be unpredictable and potentially irreversible,” said Lizzie Díaz of WRM in Uruguay.

Learning Process May Lead FSC to Accept the “Unacceptable”

The FSC’s “learning process” is designed to lead to a re-assessment of FSC’s prohibition on genetically engineered trees, a policy the council has held since 1995.

FSC calls use of GE trees an “unacceptable activity.” This prohibition has served as a block on the commercial pursuit of GE trees globally and has therefore been the target of a pressure campaign from biotechnology tree researchers. One of these researchers is now part of the FSC’s expert panel in the learning process.

GE tree advocate and developer Professor Steven Strauss of Oregon State University in the U.S., has campaigned for over twenty years to have FSC accept GE trees. He is now part of creating FSC’s “participation framework” that would be used to govern field tests. Professor Strauss will present the draft framework to FSC members in Bali.

FSC members will also vote on two motions that, if passed, could skuttle the entire project.

Will FSC Make GE Trees Inevitable?

FSC says, “Genetic engineering in forestry is likely to continue to happen with or without FSC” but both sides of the debate on GE name FSC as a key decision-maker.

Brazilian pulp and paper company Suzano is an FSC certified company pursuing genetically engineered trees. In 2012, Stanley Hirsch, the CEO of Suzano’s biotech subsidiary FuturaGene, called FSC a “market barrier” to GE trees.

In fact, FSC’s prohibition stands in the way of Suzano commercializing its new GE glyphosate-tolerant eucalyptus tree. On November 16, 2021, in a decision denounced by civil society organizations in Brazil and across the world, Brazilian regulators approved the commercial release of Suzano’s eucalyptus tree that is genetically engineered to tolerate spraying by glyphosate-based herbicides. However, Suzano can only commercially plant its GE tree if FSC overturns its current ban, or if Suzano leaves the FSC.

Suzano is one of only a handful of companies with investments in GE trees. There are a number of technical and political obstacles, including ongoing protests and FSC’s prohibition, that stand in the way of biotech tree plantations. GE trees are not inevitable – but it will take concerted action to stop them, and FSC’s decisions are influential.

On October 6, 93 environmental and social justice groups from 28 countries sent a statement calling on the FSC to maintain its prohibition on GE trees and refrain from endorsing field tests.