Last week, 300 peasants from Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) occupied a meeting of the National Technical Biosafety Commission (CTNBio) and prevented a vote on the release of genetically engineered eucalyptus trees.
CTNBio had planned to vote on the release of three new transgenic plants, including H421, a genetically engineered eucalyptus trees developed by FuturaGene, a subsidiary of pulp and paper giant Suzano.
The meeting was cancelled, but at any time in the next 30 days CTNBio can hold another extraordinary meeting. Atiliana Brunetto, the national coordination of the MST, described the occuption as a partial victory:
“The most important is that we can take this debate to society. Were it not for these actions, most likely the transgenic eucalyptus plantations would have been released without society knowing about it, and the whole population pays the price.”
Meanwhile, 1,000 woman from the MST occupied FuturaGene’s facilities in Itapetininga, in São Paulo. They sprayed messages on the walls and destroyed seedlings.
According to FuturaGene, the genetically engineered trees produce 20% more wood than Suzano’s conventional trees. The trees would be harvested at five and a half years instead of seven. Stanley Hirsch, FuturaGene’s chief executive, is quoted in a 2014 article in Nature News & Comment as saying that,
The tree’s speedy growth boosts absorption of carbon dioxide from the air by about 12% … aiding in the fight to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The genetically modified trees may also require less land to produce the same amount of wood, reducing the conversion of natural forest into plantations.
But increasing the growth rate of trees does not reduce the area of industrial tree plantations. As the growth rate increases, so too does the area of plantations. In common with any other large corporation, Suzano continually expands, to repay debt and to keep investors and shareholders happy.
As this graphic in a recent Suzano presentation illustrates, a major expansion in the company’s pulp production is planned:
Expanding pulp production means expanding the area of industrial monocultures to produce the increased amount of wood needed to keep the pulp mills running.
Faster growing trees consume even more water, creating problems as streams dry out and the water table drops. Far from addressing the problems created by industrial tree plantations, Suzano’s proposed genetically engineered trees will only intensify the problems.
Hirsch’s claim that industrial tree plantations of fast growing genetically engineered trees can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions is dangerous nonsense for at least two reasons.
First, while Suzano’s plantations absorb carbon dioxide while they are growing, they are clearcut and fed into pulp mills to produce short-lived paper products. The carbon dioxide returns quickly to the atmosphere.
Second, to stand a (hardly reassuring) 50% chance of keeping global warming below 2C this century, we need to leave two-thirds of fossil fuels below ground. Industrial tree plantations (genetically engineered or not) do not address climate change.