Native forests threatened by genetically engineered trees

by Sharon Abercrombie

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The phrase "integral ecology" that Pope Francis uses in his environmental encyclical neatly compresses the concept of the timeless interrelationship of all creation into two words.

"It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected," he writes in chapter four of "Laudato Si', On Care for Our Common Home," which is dedicated to exploring the concept of integral ecology.

"Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation," Francis said, adding "just as the different aspects of the planet -- physical, chemical and biological -- are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand."

Trees are one of those interconnected nodes in that network inhabiting the universe that know much about integral ecology. Peter Wohlleben, a German forest ranger, has provided us with a wondrous peek into their lives. The extent to which they live it is quite extraordinary.

Trees are beings with social networks that look out and protect one another, Wohlleben reveals in his best-selling 2015 book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. The 51-year-old career forest ranger’s book has been an immense hit so far in Germany and continues to sit atop the Spiegel best-seller list for nonfiction. An English translation is expected in September.

Wohlleben was unavailable for an interview, his publishing company said, due to the inundation of speaking engagements since the book published in May 2015. But a January profile in The New York Times provides a good starting pointing for understanding Wohlleben and what to expect from The Hidden Life of Trees.

The article begins by describing Wohlleben looking up at a pair of towering beeches, and telling reporter Sally McGrane, "These trees are friends. You see how the thick branches point away from each other? That's so they don't block their buddy's light."

Isn’t that exactly what Francis would have us all do? Don't block one another's well-being. Don't smother. Don't hurt one another in any way.

The Times story also includes this sweetly touching insight about the author: “Before moving on to an elderly beech to show how trees, like people, wrinkle as they age, he added, 'Sometimes pairs like this are so interconnected at the roots that when one tree dies, the other one dies, too.'” 

I've been holding onto the article for weeks, waiting for an opportune occasion to write about Wohlleben. Perhaps there’s no better time to feature him and his forest friends than on the heels of the one-year anniversary of Francis’ encyclical and an Earth Day celebration that included a worldwide "Trees for the Earth" planting campaign targeting 7.8 new trees, or one for each person on the planet.

More: "Catholics join Earth Day effort to plant 7.8 billion trees" (April 22, 2016)

Wohlleben told The Times he decided to write his book to let more people how cool trees really are, particularly the things well known to biologists but less so to the general public. From the report: “They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the "Wood Wide Web"; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”

From the get-go, Wohlleben sounds like an integral ecologist. As a child in the 1960s and '70s, he raised spiders and turtles before becoming more attuned to wildlife and ecology in high school and eventually finding his way into the field of forestry.

The Hidden Life of Trees is arriving at a most opportune time. God knows we need to have our hearts continuously opened to the intrinsic “sacred wow” factor of trees more than ever these days.

Our present and future forests stand in perilous danger due to the genetic engineering industry. Corporations like ArborGen envision replacing acres of native forests around the world with plantations of genetically engineered trees.

The GE trees are marketed as more frost-tolerant and pest-resistant than natural species and a potential boon for biofuels and pulp production. But critics like The Campaign to Stop GE Trees, an international coalition, argue the "Frankentrees" are invasive, risk contaminating natural trees, are more flammable and pose a threat to ecosystems.

The Global Asunción Declaration, made in in Asunción, Paraguay in November 2014 by an international group of biologists, geneticists, indigenous peoples, community organizers and ecologists, sounds the warning that those trees which are especially engineered to constantly produce insecticides would adversely affect pollinators and beneficial predators needed for food production and the food chain, including songbirds.

"We do not need false solutions that create more problems; we need real, just solutions that address the intertwined root causes of the multiple crises we face," the declaration read.

A host of additional environmental organizations have organized to stop ArborGen, including the Global Justice Ecology Project, Sierra Club, The Friends of the Earth, the Organic Consumers Association, Center for Food Safety, the Dogwood Alliance, and the International Center for Technology. In 2010, they filed suit to stop the planting of 260,000 genetically engineered eucalyptus trees across seven southern U.S. states. 

The American Chestnut is another tree to worry about, said Anne Petermann, an anti-GE-tree activist and executive director of the Global Justice Ecology Project.

"GE tree proponents want to plant them directly into forests with the intention of contaminating wild American chestnuts with their pollen and spread the GE chestnuts further. The USDA has already given ArborGen permission to sell a GE loblolly pine with no government oversight, no risk assessments and no ability for the public to comment or even know what is happening," she told NCR.

In 2013, the USDA released ArborGen's petition for deregulation of their GE freeze-tolerant eucalyptus and has collected nearly 40,000 comments (only four in favor). Their next step would be to release a draft environmental impact statement, which they have not done yet, “and there is no information about when this might happen,” said Petermann.

The Global Justice Ecology Project contests that GE trees are a much greater threat than GMO food crops because trees can live for decades, even centuries, and their seeds and pollen can travel up to hundreds of miles, risking contamination to their wild relatives in other native forests.

Eucalpytus, a popular species among genetic modifiers, is the world’s most widely planted hardwood plantation tree. Even absent GMO tinkering, it is known as incredibly thirsty, highly invasive and already more flammable.

Communities around the world have already seen the often ruinous effects of eucalyptus. Activist groups point to Mapuche communities in Chile surrounded by eucalyptus that have had to truck in water, for part of the year, and their native leaders have been harassed, arrested and murdered. Thousands of Brazilian women in 2006 destroyed millions of eucalyptus seedlings in response to the plantations’ impacts on their communities.

So far, China is the only country with large-scale plantations of GMO trees.

The solution to all the scariness, said Petermann, is the restoration of natural, sustainably managed forests, like those tended by Wohlleben. They come with planetary gifts like water filtration, wildlife habitats, carbon sequestration and biodiversity -- the unselfish planetary perks implicit in Francis' concept of integral ecology.

The kinds of cooperative, compassionate gifts Peter Wohllman talks about in The Hidden Life of Trees.

[Sharon Abercrombie is a frequent contributor to Eco Catholic.]

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