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
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.
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
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.
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:
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,
“ArborGen is growing GE trees for possible use as fuel”,