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GM rubber trees like jumping with no safety net

The Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) would like to register our strong opposition to the growing of genetically modified (GM) rubber trees in Malaysia.

Late last year, the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia (RRIM) submitted an application seeking approval for conducting a ‘confined’ field trial of GM rubber trees in Penawar, Kota Tinggi, Johor. In fact, it is not even clear if such field trials have already been conducted in Malaysia without public knowledge and in contravention of the law.

The application was submitted to the Biosafety Department, Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, which regulates genetically modified organisms in Malaysia, under the Biosafety Act 2007. The Genetic Modification Advisory Committee is assessing the application.

The trees, known scientifically as Hevea brasiliensis, will be genetically modified to become ‘living factories’ producing specific proteins for pharmaceutical use. The purpose of the proposed field trial is to evaluate the expression of transgenes in the leaf and latex of the GM rubber trees at different stages of growth, under field conditions.

Because the GM rubber trees will produce pharmaceutical proteins in their latex, they need to be more thoroughly evaluated. What assurances are there that the transgenes will not spread in the environment?

Critically, given their perennial growth and, in many cases, long lifespan and large size, GM trees may develop complex and multi-level ecological interactions with other organisms. The interaction of these trees with the environment canthus result in long-term impacts on soil, food webs and forest ecosystems, which need to be evaluated.

Based on the factsheet available at the Malaysian Biosafety Clearing House, we are not convinced that sufficient data and evidence of safety have been provided.

The use of human and animal (mouse) genes in the GM rubber trees also raises serious social, ethical and cultural concerns. We urge the National Biosafety Board and the NRE minister to apply Section 35 of the Biosafety Act 2007, which provides for socio-economic considerations to be taken into account.

These include matters affecting the religious, social, cultural and ethical values of communities. The opinion of the National Bioethics Council should be sought for a thorough ethical review.

Malaysia is a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which has urged a precautionary approach to GM trees, This means not growing or field-testing such trees before ascertaining the real potential long-term impacts of GM trees on global forest biological diversity and the livelihoods of indigenous and local communities.

Possible negative impacts

In particular, the application in question does not address possible negative environmental impacts, which may arise from for example, cross-pollination or spreading of seeds, which the CBD Parties have expressly cautioned against.

The Federation of German Scientists in 2008 concluded that due to the long lifespan and complexity of trees as organisms with large habitats and numerous interactions, no meaningful and sufficient risk assessment of GM trees is currently possible. In light of this, how can Malaysia even consider the application, when it may not be able to assess the true risks of GM trees nor manage them with any reasonable degree of scientific prudence?

The CBD further acknowledges the entitlement of Parties, in accordance with domestic legislation, to suspend the release of genetically modified trees where adequate capacities to undertake such assessment are not available.

Therefore, we urge the relevant authorities to exercise full social responsibility and apply the precautionary principle; this means that in view of the scientific gaps and lack of certainty there cannot be any planting of GM rubber trees in Malaysia, whether for field trials or commercial reasons.

SM MOHAMED IDRIS is president, Consumers Association of Penang and of Sahabat Alam Malaysia.

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