As the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers whether to approve the first genetically engineered (GE) forest tree for commercial use, Center for Food Safety released its new reportGenetically Engineered Trees: The New Frontier of Biotechnology. The report details the potential ecological and socioeconomic hazards of GE trees currently under commercial development.

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‘Factory forests’ GE tree plantations reduce biodiversity, can increase greenhouse gas emissions and lead to deforestation.

The USDA is currently reviewing a GE Eucalyptus for unrestricted planting. Eucalyptus is primarily cultivated to provide pulp for paper and “wood pellets,” which are used for fuel. The GE tree, developed by the biotechnology corporation ArborGen, is engineered to grow in colder climates. ArborGen hopes to cultivate GE tree plantations across much of the southeastern U.S.

“Commercializing GE trees could be devastating to the environment,” said Debbie Barker, international program director for Center for Food Safety, and editor of the report. “‘Factory forests’ will accelerate and expand large-scale, chemical-intensive, monoculture plantations. We need to understand the risks in order to determine if GE trees are a sustainable way forward or a dangerous diversion.”

GE trees have been promoted under a banner of environmental sustainability. However, the report reveals that GE tree plantations would require vast amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and water. Further, tree plantations reduce biodiversity, can increase greenhouse gas emissions and lead to deforestation.

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“Eucalyptus is the first forest tree now being considered for approval for unrestricted planting, but some of the largest biotechnology, paper and energy corporations are experimenting on pine, poplar, chestnut and several varieties of fruit trees,” Barker said.

Among the report’s key findings are the following:

  1. Claims that burning wood-pellets for fuel will help to mitigate climate change are likely false. While turning to wood pellet biomass for fuel does reduce overall sulfur dioxide emissions, emerging science reveals that burning wood pellets increases other pollutants and may not reduce greenhouse gases.
  2. GE eucalyptus tree plantations will intensify scarcity of fresh water resources in the southeast. A U.S. Forest Service environmental assessment reported that GE eucalyptus water usage is likely to be at least two-fold greater than existing native forests in the southeast.
  3. Contamination of wild trees is a serious risk. Given trees’ long life-spans and ability to disperse seeds and pollen over vast distances, GE trees could contaminate related wild trees, potentially compromising the health of American forests. Poplar, pine and eucalyptus trees are being engineered to alter lignin content to make it easier to process into biofuels as well as other wood-based products. Because lignin maintains structural integrity and helps repel pests and pathogens, the spread of these genes could be harmful.
  4. Claims that GE tree plantations will protect forests ignore the evidence. Tree plantations have increased rates of deforestation in many parts of the globe. For example, oil palm plantations have been a major factor in the astounding 60 percent loss of Indonesian forests since 1960. Demand for the products of these plantations creates economic incentives to replace forests with more plantations.

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Dr. Martha Crouch, an independent consultant for the report, and an expert on issues of biotechnology, agriculture and the environment, commented: “Commercializing unproven GE trees is too big of a risk to take with so much at stake. Monocultures of GE trees could not only replace complex native forests, but GE trees could also escape from plantations into forests where they could disrupt longstanding relationships between species.”

Despite the negative environmental impacts, GE “factory forests” would likely be very profitable for biotech companies. For instance, if GE eucalyptus is approved, ArborGen, the leading biotechnology tree company, has projected its profits will grow from $25 million to $500 million in five years.

Center for Food Safety’s report also includes specific policy recommendations that will better determine if GE trees are a truly sustainable way forward.

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.

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