World Rainforest Movement

USA: GE Trees by ArborGen challenged by environmental groups

The US South Carolina-based company ArborGen is a partnership between the timber corporations International Paper and Mead Westvaco, and the New Zealand-based Genesis Research and Development. ArborGen has been growing GE Eucalyptus hybrid trees and testing them for cold tolerance on a secret 1-acre plot in Baldwin County, Alabama, close to the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The place was found to be home to a number of experimental, genetically modified crops, many of which appear to be growing on a Loxley farm owned by agricultural giant Monsanto Co.

Federal documents report that two of the traits engineered are intended to confer cold tolerance while the others are for reduced flowering and a “selectable marker”. The specifications of these modifications are secret, considered “confidential business information” by both ArborGen and the government (http://www.epa.gov/EPA-IMPACT/2007/April/Day-20/i7637.htm)

On November 21, 2006, the company applied to the US Department of Agriculture/ Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for permission to extend their GE Eucalyptus field trials to allow flowering and seed production in the 355 GE Eucalyptus hybrid trees grown, that was specifically forbidden under the original permit. APHIS received comments until May 21 on their brief and inadequate Environmental Assessment (EA) in which they have recommended approval for these field trials. The fact that they would not reveal the details of the engineered traits made detailed commenting on the proposal impossible. A request by the Union of Concerned Scientists and another from the Sierra Club for a thirty day extension of the comment period was denied by USDA/APHIS.

With this move, ArborGen is laying the groundwork for massive plantations of non-native eucalyptus trees genetically engineered for biofuels and paper pulp in the southeast U.S. In the 1980s and 1990s, 9 nine million acres (3.6 millon hectares) of the region’s forests were converted to industrial tree plantations. Eucalyptus species are not native to the U.S. but grow well in certain warm climates such as the southern and southeast U.S. regions. In other countries where eucalyptus trees have been introduced, they are well known for escaping and colonizing native ecosystems. Escape of GE Eucalyptus trees through seeds and vegetative plant material are quite likely due to severe wind and rain events that are common to Baldwin County, where the field trials are located.

Coincidentally with the biofuel boom, an ArborGen spokesperson was reported saying about the Eucalyptus: “This is a tree you can grow in plantation settings. It can be farmed as an energy crop”. News articles and reports indicate that other traits being researched by ArborGen GE trees include reduced lignin content and insect resistance. Genetic modification of plants to reduce their lignin content in order to facilitate production of ethanol from solid biomass is an essential part of cellulosic ethanol research. This is why trees with low lignin (‘wobbly trees’) are being developed. However, suppressing lignin production –which plays a vital role in the tree’s natural defense system– has numerous side-effects, including changes in feeding patterns of defoliating insects and alterations in soil fertility from changes in wood decomposition rates.

Other industry researchers have confirmed that, due to shared biochemical pathways, suppression of lignin biosynthesis could weaken trees’ defenses against pathogens and suppress the development of the trees’ reproductive organs. Additional side effects of reduced lignin include stunted growth and collapsed vessels, leaf abnormalities and an increase in vulnerability to viral infection. The weakening of a tree’s natural defenses is likely to encourage increased pesticide use. An additional fear is the high probability that, low-lignin trees will also rot more readily –affecting soil structure, fertilizer use, and forest ecology– and will release carbon dioxide more quickly into the atmosphere —contributing to global warming.

Meanwhile, the US Congress has developed a major legislative package to promote ethanol, with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee calling for the nation to produce 36 billion gallons of the biofuel per year by 2022.

The STOP GE Trees Campaign and member groups from around the U.S., including Dogwood Alliance, WildLaw, Southern Forests Network, Sierra Club and Global Justice Ecology Project are uniting to stop the plans of ArborGen, and the first goal of this effort has been to stop the USDA’s approval of ArborGen’s GE eucalyptus field trials in Alabama. The STOP GE Trees Campaign has demanded that APHIS reject this permit and order ArborGen to destroy the existing field trials. “Once this GE tree flowering and seed production is allowed, it will be easier for APHIS to approve outdoor field trial releases of other GE trees, such as poplars and pines for flowering and seed production. This could spell disaster for our native forests,” stated Orin Langelle, Coordinator of the STOP GE Tree Campaign. The temperate forests of the Southern US are the most diverse forests in North America, recognized by biologists worldwide for their biological richness. Beyond biological diversity, forests in the region help sequester carbon and therefore play a vital role in mitigating global warming as well as help protect drinking water in the most populated region of the US.

The complex interactions of trees, understory plants, insects, animals, fungi, bacteria and soil micro-organisms are poorly understood. Dr. David Suzuki, a Canadian geneticist and author, says: “We have no control over the movement of insects, birds and mammals, wind and rain that carry pollen and seeds. Genetically engineered trees, with the potential to transfer pollen for hundreds of miles carrying genes for traits including insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, sterility and reduced lignin, thus have the potential to wreak ecological havoc throughout the world’s native forests. GE trees could also impact wildlife as well as rural and indigenous communities that depend on intact forests for their food, shelter, water, livelihood and cultural practices.”

As several groups stated in a Manuscript presented at the International Union of Forest Research Organizations conference, 11 October 2006, at Charleston, South Carolina, U.S, “At best we have an outline of the principles of interaction, but by no means do we have a complete picture. This combined with the inherent uncertainty of genetic engineering means that large-scale use of genetic engineering is dangerous. Threats posed by genetically engineered trees are simply too great to allow them to be released into the environment, much less to allow them to be mass cultivated in huge plantations”.

LAST MOMENT: The struggle against GE Trees in the US is not an easy one. The website stopgetrees.org has been hacked and had to be shut down indefinitely. “This is very unfortunate as it contains pertinent, time-sensitive information on comments for USDA/APHIS regarding GE cold tolerant eucalyptus in the southeast U.S. that is being developed for agrofuels and pulp”, expressed Orin Langelle. “We are now getting that info up on the Global Justice Ecology Project site: http://www.globaljusticeecology.org under http://globaljusticeecology.org/index.php?name=getrees&ID=419. Additionally, the online petition regarding the above disappeared for an entire day”.

Article based on: “Ecological and Social Impacts of Fast Growing Timber Plantations and Genetically Engineered Trees”, Global Justice Ecology Project, http://globaljusticeecology.org/index.php?name=getrees&ID=404; “ArborGen is growing GE trees for possible use as fuel”, http://72.14.209.104/search?q=cache:jDz2mcIsB-IJ:www.stopgetrees.org/article.php%3Fstory%3D2
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