250,000+ Oppose USDA Proposal to Approve First-Ever Genetically Engineered Forest Tree

More than a quarter of a million people and 500 organizations submitted comments Wednesday rejecting the commercialization of ArborGen Inc.'s genetically engineered (GE) eucalyptus trees, which, if approved, would be the first-ever GE forest tree approved in the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed approval in April 2017, releasing a draft Environmental Impact Statement (dEIS) for public comment. This comment period ended on July 5. The GE eucalyptus trees are engineered to tolerate freezing temperatures in order to greatly expand their growing range. The approval of these GE trees could set a precedent for future approval of GE forest trees such as poplar and pine.

In the dEIS, USDA downplayed or ignored the significant risks posed by these novel GE trees. The agency conservatively predicts commercial GE eucalyptus plantations would cover more than one million acres across seven southern states—from coastal South Carolina to eastern Texas. This would have devastating consequences across this region, which is home to a number of the poorest counties in the country, as well as some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. The region is already precariously threatened by climate change and sprawl.

"GE eucalyptus plantations spread across the South would be a disaster," stated Dr. Marti Crouch, consulting scientist for the Center for Food Safety. "Some non-GE eucalyptus species have already become invasive and are degrading natural areas. Plants and animals, including endangered species, will be unable to find suitable habitats within landscapes dominated by GE eucalyptus. Approving these trees is a terrible idea."

Just last month in Portugal, catastrophic wildfires that killed dozens were directly blamed on eucalyptus plantations that comprise more than one-quarter of Portugal's tree cover. In January, Chile experienced the worst wildfires in its history. In both cases, eucalyptus monocultures—well-known for being extremely flammable and depleting ground water—contributed to dry conditions that combined with heat waves to create the perfect setting for wildfire. Already the U.S. South is experiencing frequent droughts and heat waves, and climate change forecasts predict more of the same. The dEIS made no mention of climate change impacts in its proposed approval of these GE eucalyptus trees.

"GE eucalyptus is being pushed for commercialization to help feed the skyrocketing demand for trees for biomass electricity," said Ruddy Turnstone, GE Trees Campaigner for Global Justice Ecology Project, and a resident of Florida in the region targeted for GE eucalyptus plantations. "But biomass is a false solution to climate change. Not only is it a major polluter, climate-stabilizing Southeastern forests are being decimated for the booming European biomass industry. GE eucalyptus plantations will only escalate this deforestation."

USDA's assurances that GE eucalyptus will not escape into native forests are fatally undercut by the U.S.'s 30-year experiment with GE crops, which have escaped containment over and over again, despite industry and USDA claims they would not. GE trees are even more likely to escape and spread than GE crops, given their much longer lives, pollination distances and the unpredictable, changing conditions that can occur over the lifespan of the trees.

"Forests are interwoven with human evolution," stated Dr. Rachel Smolker, Co-Director of Biofuelwatch and Steering Committee member of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees. "They regulate and stabilize water flow and climate, enrich soils and prevent erosion. They provide food, medicine, shelter, fuel, livelihoods, recreation and sanctuary for peoples around the world. They literally make life on Earth possible. Trees have evolved over the eons in adaptation to their native environments. Tweaking their genetics and planting them in foreign environments demonstrates an alarming lack of understanding of ecology and genetics."

Beyond the ecological impacts are the effects on local communities that will result from these GE eucalyptus plantations. "GE eucalyptus trees exemplify the unjust and unsustainable forestry model," explained BJ McManama of the Indigenous Environmental Network. "There are already hundreds of documented human rights abuses resulting from the unchecked expansion of eucalyptus plantations in Central and South America. Indigenous and traditional communities are poisoned by exposure to deadly chemicals and in some cases violently evicted from their ancestral lands. These abuses demonstrate the forest industry's blatant disregard for both people and the environment. USDA must deny this petition."

Public opposition to GE eucalyptus has been consistent and strong. In February 2013, the government released ArborGen's GE eucalyptus petition for public comment, resulting in a response of 10,000 to one opposing the GE eucalyptus trees. This was followed by the then-largest ever protest against GE trees at the Tree Biotechnology Conference in Asheville, North Carolina. In April of this year the USDA finally made public their draft findings recommending approval of ArborGen's petition, eliciting yesterday's avalanche of comments rejecting GE eucalyptus trees in the U.S. Even the dEIS itself highlights public opposition as creating risks for investors:

"An additional source of risk that extends beyond the scope of this study is the risk of some public backlash against the planting of genetically modified trees. This societal risk could affect investment choices in the same fashion as biophysical risk—i.e., increased risk would reduce the rate of adoption."

Show Comments ()
glasseyes view / Flickr

Global Carbon Emissions Rise for First Time Since 2014

Global carbon dioxide emissions from energy increased for the first time in 2017 after three years of remaining flat, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said Thursday, meaning the world remains far off course in curbing planet warming emissions.

Carbon emissions reached a record-high of 32.5 gigatonnes in 2017 due to global economic growth and increased energy demands that was met mostly by fossil fuels. As the Financial Times noted, that growth—an increase of 460 million tonnes—is the equivalent to the emissions of an additional 170 million cars.

Keep reading... Show less
A fire broke out at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California in 2012. Pascal POGGI / Flickr

Chevron Presents on Climate Science While Oil Companies Move to Dismiss Landmark Case

This was a big week for the suit brought by San Francisco and Oakland against the five largest investor-owned fossil fuel companies for the costs associated with adapting to climate change.

First, the five companies in question—Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell—filed a motion Tuesday to dismiss the case, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had dismissed similar cases in the past because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, not private companies, is responsible for setting and enforcing carbon dioxide levels, Forbes reported.

Keep reading... Show less

Trump Administration Offers 77 Million Acres in Gulf of Mexico to Oil Industry

The Trump administration is holding the biggest offshore oil and gas lease auction in U.S. history Wednesday, offering all 77 million acres of unleased, available federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

The sale comes as administration officials seek to rescind drilling safety rules approved after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, reduce royalties paid by oil companies, and expand offshore drilling into every ocean in the country.

Keep reading... Show less
Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt. Mitchell Resnick

Pruitt to Restrict Use of Scientific Data in EPA Policymaking

In the coming weeks, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is expected to announce a proposal that would limit the type of scientific studies and data the agency can use in crafting public health and environmental regulations.

The planned policy shift, first reported by E&E News, would require the EPA to only use scientific findings whose data and methodologies are made public and can be replicated.

Keep reading... Show less
Mity / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

20% of U.S. Diets Responsible for Almost Half of Country’s Food-Related Emissions, Study Finds

If you've been deliberating about going vegetarian, a study published Tuesday in Environmental Letters might give you the final push.

Keep reading... Show less
Sea Shepherd small boat assists the Liberian Coast Guard to chase down the F/V Hai Lung. Sea Shepherd

Notorious Toothfish Poacher Arrested by Liberian Coast Guard, Assisted by Sea Shepherd

A notorious Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish poaching vessel, famous for plundering the Antarctic, was arrested on March 13 in waters belonging to the West African state of Liberia by the Liberian Coast Guard, with assistance from the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd.

The F/V Hai Lung, known to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) by its previous name "Kily," was transiting through Liberian waters when it was boarded and inspected by a Liberian Coast Guard team working alongside Sea Shepherd crew on board Sea Shepherd's patrol vessel M/Y Sam Simon.

Keep reading... Show less

7 Must-See Films at the 42nd Cleveland International Film Fest

It's that time, again!

EcoWatch is proud to be a media partner of the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF), now celebrating its 42nd year. This year, EcoWatch is honored to be sponsoring Anote's Ark. This documentary spotlights Kiribati, a small remote island facing devastating effects due to climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: 'We have approved Bayer's plans to take over Monsanto because the parties' remedies, worth well over €6 billion, meet our competition concerns in full.' EU Commission Twitter

EU Approves Controversial Bayer-Monsanto Merger

The European Union approved Bayer's takeover of Monsanto, a major hurdle in the $66 billion merger that would create the world's largest integrated seed and pesticide conglomerate.

The European Commission said the German chemical-maker's takeover of the St. Louis-based agribusiness giant is "conditional on an extensive remedy package, which addresses the parties' overlaps in seeds, pesticides and digital agriculture."

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!