Mouvement mondial pour les forêts tropicales

United States – WRM information sheet on GE tree research

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WRM information sheets on GE tree research

First posted: 1 August 2008
Updated: 30 October 2008 (including information provided by the Global Justice Ecology Project)
Updated: 10 July 2009, based on (1) and (2) (Field trials)

Last update: August 2014

Tree species (excluding fruit trees) being manipulated:

  • Poplars (Populus sp.)
  • Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus sp.) (commercial application pending)
  • American Chestnut (Castanea dentata)
  • Pine (Pinus sp.)
  • English Walnut (Juglans regia)
  • Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
  • American Elm (Ulmus americana)

Aim of genetic manipulation

  • altered wood composition (including reduced lignin and increased cellulose for easier conversion into ethanol or paper)
  • faster growth
  • shorter and fatter trees
  • insect resistance (Bt), disease resistance (fungi and viruses) stress resistance (drought tolerance, salt tolerance, cold tolerance, etc)
  • altered fertility, reduced flowering and/or sterility
  • herbicide tolerance
  • higher storage of carbon
  • improved wood quality and reduced branching (pine for sawtimber)
  • increased levels of terpenes (pines for biodiesel)
  • phytoremediation (removing toxics from soils)

The trees closest to commercial development are GE freeze tolerant, altered fertility eucalyptus for biomass electricity production.  Also in advanced development are poplars and eucalyptus with altered wood composition, faster growth and altered fertility for biofuels.

Those carrying out the research:

  • About 10 companies are active on GE Tree Research in the USA including Arborgen, Duke Energy, Edenspace Systems Corporation, FuturaGene, GreenWood Resources, International Paper Company, MeadWestVaco, Monsanto Fund, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, Rubicon Ltd. , Southern Garden Citrus, U.S. Sugar Corporation, Weyerhauser.
  • About 16 universities are also involved including those of Cornell, Clemson, Mississippi State, Oregon State, Pennsylvania State, Purdue, Texas A&M, Washington State, California Davis, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii Manoa, Washington, Virginia Tech, as well as the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Those who provide support to research:

  • The Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research
  • TGERC (Oregon State University) received funding from several pulp and paper companies, including Aracruz (Fibria at present), Weyerhaeuser, International Paper, MacMillan Blodel and Potlatch Corporation. Other funders include the National Science Foundation and Oregon State University.
  • The Society of American Foresters
  • Institute for Forest Biotechnology (includes the following partners: US Forest Service, MeadWestvaco, Weyerhaeuser, International Paper, North Carolina Biotechnology Center, ArborGen, North Carolina State University, Clemson University, Oregon State University, Michigan Tech, Penn State, University of Washington, SUNY Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Universidade Federal de Viçosa [Brazil], University of Georgia).
  • Other state actors involved in funding and/or research are the US Departments of Energy, Interior, Agriculture and Transportation, the DOE Joint Genome Institute, USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, USDA Agricultural Service, US Forest Service

Regulatory framework for research and field trials:

  • The United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). APHIS, as authorized by the Plant Protection Act of 2000, plays the major role in overseeing field tests and approval of GE plants. In 2002, APHIS created the Biotechnology Regulatory Services unit within the Agency; it now manages all activities with respect to GE organisms (www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/).
  • APHIS has historically been very amenable to approving commercial release of GE plants. They have already approved commercial release of a GE virus-resistant plum tree (Honeysweet plum), and gave approval to a field trial of GE poplars with 95 transgenic constructs to be carried out by TBGRC in Oregon.
  • The website to view all the GE tree releases in the US is http://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/status/BRS_public_data_file.xlsx

Field trials:

  • The US has almost 900 acres (360 hectares) of genetically engineered tree field trials across 20 states, mainly in the U.S. South, Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. The vast majority of these are in three species: 355 acres of field trials are in GE eucalyptus and 322 acres are in GE poplars. GE Lobolly pines are planted in more than 150 acres. (For an overview see: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/status/BRS_public_data_file.xlsx)
  • In July 2009, ArborGen received approval from the U.S. government (USDA) to plant some 260,000 GE eucalyptus trees in 29 field trials covering over 330 acres in seven US states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas). These GE eucalyptus, a hybrid of Eucalyptus grandis X Eucalyptus urophylla, are engineered to tolerate colder temperatures, produce less lignin, and digest some of their own RNA in the hope of reducing fertility (a Terminator-type genetic technology). (1)
  • On December 31, 2011 ArborGen submitted a petition to the US government (USDA APHIS) requesting permission – the first in the USA –  to commercially release freeze tolerant GE eucalyptus. , This application has been heavily opposed by several groups, arguing that Eucalyptus trees are not native to the US and are a documented invasive species; they are also highly flammable and known to deplete ground water. In 2014 APHIS announced that it is voluntarily preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).  This EIS indicates at least that the agency is aware of both the potentially severe environmental impacts these GE trees will have and the overwhelming public opposition to them. In the agency’s history, however, APHIS has never rejected an industry request to deregulate a GE plant.

Collaboration with New Zealand, Brazil and Australia:

  • ArborGen’s GE Eucalyptus trees began as hybrids from Brazil and were genetically modified in New Zealand to withstand American caterpillars and tolerate colder temperatures, then shipped to the United States for outdoor field trials.
  • ArborGen also has offices in Australia.
  • ArborGen also has outdoor field trials in Brazil of faster-growing, low-lignin eucalyptus.   Their office is in Campinas, near Sao Paulo.

Organizations opposing GE trees:

  • Dogwood Alliance
  • Sierra Club
  • Global Justice Ecology Project
  • Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Center for Food Safety
  • Biofuelwatch
  • Indigenous Environmental Network
  • Everglades Earth First!
  • Center for Biological Diversity
  • Northwest Resistance Against Genetic Engineering

Actions by unidentified actors:

  • In March, 2001 Oregon State University (OSU) students and alumni targeted three GE test sites of Poplar and Cottonwood trees. They ringbarked or cut down 90% of the trees at OSU’s site at the Peavey Arboretum. At OSU’s tract near Half Moon Bend of the Willamette River they eliminated 60% of the trees. Every tree was cut down in one test plot at OSU’s Agricultural Experiment Station in Klamath Falls. In all, over 1200 GE research trees were destroyed.

Sources:

  1. http://www.safnet.org/policyandpress/psst/forest_tree_biotech.pdf
  2. http://www.wrm.org.uy/oldsite/bulletin/112/GE_poplar_cellulose_biofuel.html
  3. http://www.wrm.org.uy/oldsite/bulletin/118/USA.html
  4. http://www.wrm.org.uy/oldsite/bulletin/46/USA.html
  5. http://www.wrm.org.uy/oldsite/subjects/GMTrees/text.pdf
  6. http://www.globaljusticeecology.org/stopgetrees_about.php?ID=88
  7. http://www.globaljusticeecology.org/files/EA%20on%20GE%20eucalyptus.pdf
  8. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/reports/2637/genetically-engineered-trees-the-new-frontier-of-biotechnology
  9. http://wrm.org.uy/articles-from-the-wrm-bulletin/section2/us-agency-aware-of-potential-impacts-of-ge-trees/)
  10. Anne Petermann, Global Justice Ecology Project, personal communication