"Use of genetically modified organisms shall be prohibited," states Criterion 6.8 of FSC's Principles and Criteria. That appears to be clear. Strictly interpreted this would mean that a company carrying out laboratory research into GE trees (and/or financing such research) should not be certified under the FSC system, because that would involve the use of genetically modified organisms. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, FSC's Certification Bodies (assessors) don't take such a strict interpretation of criterion 6.8.
The assessors seem to be supported by FSC's policies and standards, which more or less confirm that Criterion 6.8 does not amount to a ban on GM trees for FSC-certified operations.
In 2000, FSC produced a "Partial Certification Policy" which explains that it is OK to plant some GE trees, provided that they are not in the plantation area to be certified, and provided there aren't too many of them. No really, that's what it says:
"For example, a company decides to submit its Unit A for certification assessment. The certifier obtains information indicating that the same company does research regarding genetically modified organisms in another area, Unit B, and that this research covers a limited area of Unit B. In this case, the certifier may determine that, although management of Unit B does not comply with FSC requirements, this lack of compliance does not necessarily demonstrate a lack of commitment on the part of the applicant with the FSC Principles and Criteria, or does not represent a major failure at the level of Principle 1. Nonetheless, if the information obtained were to indicate that the other forestry units of the same company (B, C, etc.) exclusively use genetically modified organisms, the certifier faces a situation which -due to its magnitude and frequency- indicates a clear lack of will on the part of the applicant to comply with FSC Criteria 6.8
"In this case the certifier must establish whether such lack of commitment represents a major failure at the level of Principle 1, which may have an effect over certification of Unit A."
Also in 2000, FSC produced an "Interpretation on GMOs", which states: "The use of GMOs is prohibited in certified forests, and would normally constitute a major failure of Principle 6." This allows the use of GM trees by certified companies, as long as they are not planted in the area certified. This is confirmed later on in the Interpretation: "not even research into GMOs may be included in certified forests". But why does the word "normally" appear? Under what circumstances could the use of GMOs not constitute a major failure of Principle 6?
In 2004, FSC produced a "Controlled Wood Standard", which excludes "wood harvested from genetically modified (GM) trees". According to this, therefore, it seems that research into and planting of GE trees is allowed provided the wood does not end up in a product carrying the FSC label.
I asked Andre de Freitas, FSC's Head of Policy and Standards, whether he could clarify FSC's position on GM trees. I also asked him the following questions:
- Has a company ever been refused an FSC certificate because it is carrying out laboratory research into GM trees? Or because it is planting GM trees outside the certified area?
- Although FSC's interpretation on GMOs (FSC-POL-30-602  EN) was approved by the FSC Board in May 2000, the interpretation includes the following statement:
"This draft has been prepared by secretariat staff. It does not have official status as an FSC position. After appropriate amendment, with approval by the board of directors, it will be added to the FSC Guidelines for Certification Bodies, which is part of the agreement between FSC, CBs and NIs. Please send your comments to the secretariat."Could you please explain the current status of FSC's interpretation on GMOs.
- In June 1999, FSC's General Assembly approved a motion to complete the drafting of the FSC Policy on GMOs. "This policy should address among other things the Precautionary Principle. A draft of such clarification and policy should be submitted to the membership for review and comment within 6 months." Has FSC ever produced a Policy on GMOs?
- How did the Plantations Review deal with the question of use of GMOs?
De Freitas has not replied to my questions (I wrote to him on 23 August 2007 and requested a reply by 7 September 2007). FSC-watch would welcome a public clarification from FSC on its position on GM trees in the comments section below.