Quantcast
GMO

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 ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Climate
A train at Metro-North Railroad's Croton-Harmon station, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 30, 2012. Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York / CC BY 2.0

The Big Apple Loses to Big Oil as Judge Dismisses Climate Liability Suit

A federal judge ruled on Thursday in favor of a motion by five big oil companies to dismiss a lawsuit brought against them by New York City, which demanded they pay the costs of adapting the city's infrastructure to climate change, The New York Times reported.

The ruling comes nearly a month after a federal judge in San Francisco dismissed a similar case brought by the cities of Oakland and San Francisco.

Keep reading... Show less
GMO
Brian Smith and his cousin Hughes, both fifth generation soybean farmers in Mississippi County, Arkansas, stand in soybean fields their family tend to that show signs of having been affected by dicamba use in August, 2017. Getty Images

New Dicamba Drift Estimate: 1.1 Million Acres Damaged Already in 2018

A University of Missouri report released Thursday estimates that drift damage from the pesticide dicamba has occurred across 1.1 million acres of agricultural crops, trees and other plants so far this year.

This comes less than a year after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many states introduced additional restrictions meant to prevent off-target damage from the pesticide. Last year dicamba drift wreaked havoc on a reported 3.6 million acres of soybean crops not genetically engineered to resist the notoriously drift-prone pesticide.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Andreas Gücklhorn

Most Popular Energy Source? Everyone Loves Solar

By John Rogers

A recent survey shows yet again that solar panels (and wind turbines) have a level of bipartisan popularity that would be the envy of any politician. That means we'll have something safe to talk about at the next barbecue after all.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Moon with orange-colored troposphere band, the lowest and most dense portion of the earth's atmosphere. NASA

‘Powerful Evidence’ of Global Warming’s Effect on Seasons Found in Troposphere

By Daisy Dunne

Scientists studying the troposphere—the lowest level of the atmosphere—have found "powerful evidence" that climate change is altering seasonal temperatures.

A study published in Science finds that climate change has caused an increase in the difference between summer and winter temperatures across North America and Eurasia over the past four decades.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Health
Susan Hedman, administrator of EPA's Region 5 during the Flint water crisis, testifies before congress. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

EPA Watchdog Finds Agency Failed in Flint Water Crisis

A report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) internal watchdog organization published Thursday argued that the EPA needed to step up its monitoring of state drinking water in the aftermath of the Flint, Michigan water crisis, CBS reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Emilie Chen / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Against All Odds, Mountain Gorilla Numbers Are on the Rise

By Jason Bittel

The news coming out of East Africa's Virunga Mountains these days would have made the late (and legendary) conservationist Dian Fossey very happy. According to the most recent census, the mountain gorillas introduced to the world in Gorillas in the Mist, Fossey's book and the film about her work, have grown their ranks from 480 animals in 2010 to 604 as of June 2016. Add another couple hundred apes living in scattered habitats to the south, and their population as a whole totals more than 1,000. Believe it or not, this makes the mountain gorilla subspecies the only great apes known to be increasing in number.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Animals
The Florida manatee is one of the animals currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. USFWS / Southeast

Trump Administration Announces Sweeping Proposal to Weaken Endangered Species Act

A week after House Republicans announced legislation intended to weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Trump administration joined the attack with a proposal environmentalists say would favor developers over vulnerable plant and animal species.

Keep reading... Show less
Renewable Energy
Denver will get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. Robert Kash / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Denver to Go 100 Percent Renewable by 2030

Denver became the 73rd city in the U.S. to commit to 100 percent renewable energy when Mayor Michael Hancock announced the goal in his State of the City speech Monday, The Denver Post reported.

The commitment is part of the city's larger 80×50 Climate Action Plan unveiled by Hancock Tuesday, which seeks to reduce Denver's greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2050.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

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