USDA Approves Genetically Modified Trees For Trial Planting

eucalyptus_clippedOn May 12th, 2010, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”) approved for continued field tests the planting of genetically modified eucalyptus trees in seven states, stretching from Florida to Texas.

Conducting only an Environmental Assessment (“EA”), and not an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”), the USDA claimed that the field trials, which would involve more than 200,000 of GM eucalyptus trees planted on 28 sites, covering 300 acres, would cause no environmental impact.

An EA is a concise public document that briefly provides evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an EIS or issue a finding of no significant impact.    If, after preparing an EA and receiving public comments the agency finds no significant impact, an EIS will not be required.  In short, an EA is not as thorough of an investigation as would otherwise be conducted if the agency was preparing an EIS.

Finding that GM trees will not a cause significant impact, the USDA will issue a permit to ArborGen, a biotech company owned by International Paper, MeadWestvaco and Rubicon, for the planting of eucalyptus trees with foreign genes meant to help them withstand cold weather.  The purpose of the trial planting is to evaluate whether such GM trees can become a new sources of wood for pulp and paper and for biofules in the Southern timber belt. In addition the trees have been engineered with a selectable marker gene which confers resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin.  These GM trees are derived from a hybrid of Eucalyptus grandis X Eucalyptus urophylla.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Eucalyptus is considered a valuable and most widely planted genus of plantation forest trees in the world (ca. 18 million hectares) due to its wide adaptability, extremely fast growth rate, good form, and excellent wood and fiber properties. The Energy Department views eucalyptus treesas an excellent candidate biomass energy crop and any wide planting in the U.S. represents a big financial opportunity for the paper and biofuel industry.

Many groups, however, oppose USDA’s decision, citing serious concerns associated with such a large scale test planting of a new and relatively little known GMO. For example, New York Times is reporting that because trees live longer than annual crops and generally can spread their pollen farther, there are concerns that any unintended environmental effects may spread and persist longer in a woodland environment than in crop fields. People also have emotional and sentimental attachment to forests that USDA fails to take into consideration as it issues the planting permit. Additionally, there are concerns that the eucalyptus trees, even without foreign genes, may become invasive. Many critics say the trees are heavy users of water, could spread fires faster and could harbor a fungus that sickens people.

Anne Petermann, Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project and North American representative of the Global Forest Coalition, stated that “eucalyptus plantations have devastated forests and communities. In Brazil, the Mata Atlantica forest has been all but wiped out by eucalyptus plantations. In Chile, communities living near eucalyptus plantations have lost their access to fresh water.”

According to NYT, the Sierra Club, in a comment submitted in February, wrote:

ArborGen’s plans to grow 260,000 artificially developed, highly experimental, alien, genetically engineered cloned trees in extensive field trials raises many troubling ecological questions about the short-term and long-term environmental impacts and risks that these trees pose in the United States.

The USDA dismissed the critics’ concerns as “unlikely.”  The USDA also dismissed comments received from 12,462 people or organizations opposing the GM trees trial, compared with only 45 supporters of the trial, stating that the vast majority of the opposing comments were nearly identical form letters. Since when do the regulations require that public comments submitted to federal agencies be unique and original?

George Kimbrell, attorney with Center for Food Safety, cited these concerns:

Allowing the release of these GE eucalyptus trees will set a legal precedent that could allow the release of genetically engineered poplars or pines–which have wild relatives across the continent.  The commercial release of engineered versions of native trees would lead to the contamination of forests with engineered pollen.  Once this occurs there is absolutely nothing that can be done to stop the further contamination of more forests.  We have to stop the release of GE trees before this contamination occurs.