By Jasper Copping –

Scientists have applied to plant genetically modified trees in Britain despite fears that they will damage native wildlife, The Sunday Telegraph can disclose.

Supporters of GM trees say the technology can also be used to help protect Britain’s forests from disease

They have asked the Forestry Commission for permission to put GM trees on its land for an international study into biofuels. But environmental campaigners have pledged to fight the scheme.

It is the first time scientists have tried to grow GM trees here since 1999, when activists destroyed 115 specimens at a test site in Bracknell, Berkshire.

Scientists from the University of Southampton said the time had now come to try and “move the debate forward” on GM trees. Their project involves poplars that have been genetically altered to reduce the amount of lignin, a constituent of wood. The team believe this will make it easier for the trees to be used to produce ethanol, a so called “biofuel” which can be used to replace petrol in cars, as well as pulp for paper.

Supporters of GM trees say the technology can also be used to help protect Britain’s forests from disease and improve the quality of the country’s timber produce.

Professor Gail Taylor, who is leading the new project, said: “We’re in a black hole at the moment, as far as research goes. But it is hard to imagine a world in the future where these technologies are not deployed more widely.

“We need to get the evidence to see if these things can be deployed on a wide scale.

“The extreme environmentalists are preventing us from collecting the evidence. We have to go public and try to move the public debate forward. We know what the consequences will be but we need that debate.”

But Clare Oxborrow, GM campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “We have major concerns. We have no idea what the interaction with wild trees could be. There could be unforeseen consequences.

“There is a growing global movement for a complete moratorium on GM trees, because of their ecological impact. These trees could cross-pollinate with wild trees over great distances. If traits are passed on to native trees it can have a significant negative impact on biodiversity.”

Anne Peterman, from the international group Global Justice Ecology Project, which is running a campaign called Stop GE (genetically engineered) Trees, said: “GM trees are a very bad idea, for a lot of reasons. If these trees are released into the environment, then contamination is inevitable. We do not support any trials, because there is no guarantee against escapes of the genetically modified traits.”

Trees are expected to become a major source of biofuel and the Southampton team believe the GM modified ones will have an ethanol yield 40 per cent greater than “normal” poplars.

They are carrying out the research with academics from France and Belgium and are seeking locations in Britain and Belgium. They have submitted an application with the Forestry Commission to use one of the UK sites run by its research agency, Forest Research. If it is approved, the location will be made public.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will also have to approve the scheme, but scientists have been encouraged by recent comments by Joan Ruddock, the Environment Minister, in which she appears to endorse new GM trees trials, provided they comply with strict guidelines. Earlier this year, the Minister attended a meeting in Germany to discuss the issue with politicians from around the world.

The meeting outlined the circumstances in which trials could go ahead. Until the end of trials in the 1990s, British scientists were in the vanguard of research into GM trees and were the first to grow elm that could resist Dutch elm disease. Researchers at the University of Abertay in Dundee found that anti-fungal genes transferred into the elm genome were able give the trees the capacity to fight off the killer fungus.

Scientists believe other tree diseases, such as chestnut blight and sudden oak death, which is affecting a growing number of oak and beech trees in the UK, could also be tackled by genetic modification. Trees have also been genetically altered to grow more quickly, be more tolerant of weedkillers and resistant to pests. Professor Claire Halpin, from the University of Dundee, worked on the field trials of poplars destroyed by saboteurs in 1999.

She said: “The real tragedy of the attacks on the field trials were that they actually prevented us accumulating the knowledge of just how useful they could be. I can’t see any justification for interfering with field trials.

“The whole area has had such a bad press that it would be a real bonus to find an example where they could show a conservation benefit – to make people stop and think again that it could be beneficial, rather than the entrenched positions – almost knee-jerk responses that some of the conservation groups have come out with.

“In other parts of the world, people really are pursuing it much more actively than we are at the moment. If these trees do offer benefits we will be left behind.”

Although research in the UK stopped at the end of the 1990s, other countries have invested heavily in the technology and experts fear a lack of new research could leave the British forestry industry struggling to compete with foreign competition.

Jane Karthaus, from the UK’s Confederation of Forest Industries, said: “We are always open-minded and if there were a potentially significant (GM) breakthrough which, for example, would allow a reduction in pesticide use, or would tackle a challenge thrown up by climate change, such as, from new pests and diseases then we would consider it within the context of sustainable forest management with partners in the environmental sector and in government.”

There have been five field trials of GM trees in Britain. Three were completed normally: two trials of eucalyptus conducted by Shell in Kent, one in 1993 and one in 1995, and a trial of paradise apple carried out by the University of Derby in 1995. But two trials of poplars by the biotechnology company Astra Zeneca, at Jealott’s Hill, Bracknell, Berkshire, one due to be completed by 2002 and the other by 2004, were destroyed by eco-activists in 1999.

Information appearing on is the copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited and must not be reproduced in any medium without licence. For the full copyright statement see Copyright