The US Dept. of Agriculture’s proposed approval of an ArborGen plan to plant more than 250,000 genetically engineered eucalyptus trees on 330 acres of land across seven southern US states has resulted in a storm of protest and more than 17,400 negative public comments.
The trees have been genetically engineered to be tolerant to cold weather, produce less lignin and altered their fertility characteristics in an effort to produce a fast growing feedstock for cellulosic ethanol. Dubbed “frankentrees,” environmental groups including the regional Dogwood Alliance have quickly put together a STOP GE Trees Campaign.
Industrial eucalyptus tree farming is already a highly contentious and heavily criticized issue. Adding genetic modification to the mix only compounds the high risks and potential costs of the plan. Among the many and varied criticisms of the proposal, environmental groups point out that eucalyptus trees are not native to North America, are highly invasive, reduce biodiversity and push out native species. Yet more disruptive, they soak up large amounts of ground water, are highly flammable and exacerbate drought conditions, critics of the plan point out.
The Frankentree for Biofuel Plan
The strain of genetically engineered eucalyptus ArborGen intends to plant in the US South originated from naturally occurring tissue taken from a plant in Brazil, where non-GMO industrial eucalyptus tree farming has been causing large scale ecological damage and social problems for many years.
The tree tissue was then shipped to New Zealand, where it was genetically engineered, and then shipped to the US for cloning and outdoor release.
“Here in New Zealand ArborGen has been prevented from doing field trials of their GE trees because it is recognized that the risks associated with these field trials are simply too great,” stated Steffan Browning, co-chair and spokesperson for the Soil & Health Association of New Zealand.
“GE trees are prohibited from field trials in New Zealand, so ArborGen will export them to the USA or anywhere else they can get away with it. This scandal brings shame to New Zealand’s clean, green GMO-free reputation,” he added.
The USDA-ArborGen plan would see all but one of the trial GMO eucalyptus tree farms flower and seed, which would result in unintended and uncontrolled spreading outside the trial fields, environmental groups say.
“The Organic Consumer’s Association strongly opposes the release of any and all GMO trees into the environment,” stated Craig Minowa, Environmental Scientist at the OCA.
“Some of the projected social and environmental impacts from the release of GMO trees commercially include the increased use of toxic herbicides and pesticides and the contamination of native forests with GMO trees engineered for such traits as reduced lignin, insect resistance, or faster growth which would be devastating to forest ecosystems,” he added.
The Industrial-GMO Model for Farming Trees
In addition to being the latest issue of contention between advocates of and those opposing introduction of genetically modified species and growing crops for energy, this latest furor is symptomatic and hints at a deeper, perhaps root cause of tension and dispute between businesses and those representing broader public interests.
Rather than taking holistic, ecosystems or life cycle approaches when developing and commercializing new technologies that are bound to have widespread and negative impacts on human health and the environment, they continue to apply conventional, dangerously narrow-minded industrial age, mass production-mass market thinking and models when doing so.
Concerns regarding health, the environment, biodiversity and social equity are thrust aside, minimized or plowed under by the power and influence of large business interests and industry groups in a headlong rush for investment capital, profits and dominance of new markets.
“Releasing a quarter of a million genetically modified trees that are allowed to both flower and produce seeds is irresponsible and dangerous,” stated George Kimbrell, Staff Attorney for the Center for Food Safety. “USDA failed to analyze rigorously the foreseeable impacts of this unprecedented experiment on native environments, which could have devastating consequences,” he concluded.