A Silent Forest – a Look at Genetically Engineered Trees

A Silent Forest

The video production embedded above addresses an alarming trend – that of the genetic modification of trees. Many might tend to ignore this trend, as we don’t, directly, eat trees, but as the geneticist David Suzuki explains, along with the documentary’s other contributors, the implications run a lot deeper than just that….

I highly recommend you watch and circulate this production.

With agriculture and environmental management we really only have two options: One is to observe, learn about and imitate natural systems – seeing how one element (a plant, an animal, an insect, etc.) interacts with another, and then assembling the various elements in such a way as to harness their relationships for increased productivity and health (permaculture); or, the second option is to ignore these relationships and look at and deal with these elements in isolation, and subsequently battle the symptoms that are the inevitable result of the ensuing discordance.

Complete genetic engineering of all species will be the inevitable result of persevering with the second option. Monocrop systems do not work. Nature’s laws do not allow for it. If we push on with this mindset, regardless, we embark on a bumpy road without end, or that ends in complete catastrophe. (If you think I’m overstating this, please read this post, where you’ll learn about a modified soil organism that could have wiped out our entire food supply).

As my Which Came First – Pests, or Pesticides? post explains, we’re getting into a treadmill of dependency that gets faster and faster until we just can’t keep up. It is, in fact, this treadmill that has lead Big Agri into genetic engineering in the first place. Rather than learn from their mistakes, and looking at root causes to the problems they, themselves, have created, they’re pushing on obstinately with their well financed treadmill, going where angels fear to tread, but where, by nature of the uncontrollability of these technologies (see also), we’re forced to follow as fellow passengers on this planet.

We cannot tailor nature to suit the contemporary capitalist dream of never-ending leisure. Her laws are immutable. She will not settle on a new equilibrium just to suit us. But, we can benefit from those laws, and create a more stable, peaceful, rewarding and healthy existence by coming to understand and work within them instead.

The revolving door of industry heads moving into or influencing government makes it essential that we also make our voice heard at the highest levels to provide greater oversight over these industries. We need to see people pushing for policy changes that incentivise small scale polycultures. We need to see compulsory labelling for all GMOs, and we need to see the precautionary principle applied to all decisions in regards to biotechnology. The current situation where biotech giants effectively write their own guidelines, and where supposed oversight administrators simply give approval for new strains based on the biotech industry’s own safety studies, is totally unacceptable.

When it comes to genetically engineering trees, we, I believe, are stepping onto holy ground.

Photographs copyright ©Craig Mackintosh

Some of you may recall my writing about my observations in Vietnam (see here, here and here for example). Well, one aspect I didn’t work into those posts is the deep respect with which most of the minority tribes of Vietnam, in contrast to the Kinh majority, hold forest trees. The older, larger trees in particular are held as sacred entities of the forest. Minority tribes there bring gifts and incense to literally worship the trees and pray for bountiful harvests. Now I’m not a tree worshipper, but I do see the inherent sacredness of trees – their role in the carbon cycle is critical, and the services they grant us, if we only give them the space to do so, are multiple and tremendously important. While I may not pray to a tree to grant me a bumper crop, I know enough about soil science, plant health, nutrient and water cycling, etc., to know that without the trees, I won’t have a crop. Period.

If we’re to survive as a race, we need to learn, somehow, to gain, or regain, a sacred regard for our trees. Having industry-financed geneticists experiment with their genetics is like letting a few delinquent teenagers loose on a nuclear submarine. It’s not only disrespectful, it’s positively dangerous.

Unlike a sheet of metal that can be machined with consistent results, organisms in natural systems are ever changing and adjusting. The term bio-engineering itself is a contradiction in terms – they are entirely juxtaposed. ‘Bio’ equates to ‘life’. ‘Engineering’ refers to design and manufacture – a blueprint of exactness. Biological forms (i.e. life-forms) can never be ‘engineered’ – i.e. predictably controlled or manipulated. Where, in mathematics (adding numbers or inanimate objects) 1 + 1 = 2, in biology (i.e. the combination of two life forms), 1 + 1 may equal 3, or a billion and three. This makes ‘bio-engineering’, in the best-case scenario, a futile exercise and an enormous misallocation of human and environmental resources, and, in the worse case scenario, an ecological catastrophe with no chance for a product recall.

We cannot alter nature to suit our lifestyles and her laws cannot be rewritten according the needs of big business. Rather, we must learn to adapt to nature’s laws. In doing so we will find resilience, health, happiness, and security.