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Genetically Engineered Tree Developments: Cold Tolerant Eucalyptus in the US

By: Anne Petermann, Global Justice Ecology Project

Added: Sep 1, 2011

Anne Petermann is the Executive Director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, a member organization of the Environmental Paper Network.  All photos credit: Petermann/GJEP-GFC

Photo: Petermann/GJEP-GFCIn Arraial D' Ajuda in the state of Bahia in Brazil this summer, the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) joined timber companies Embrapa and Veracel to host a conference called "Tree Biotechnology 2011."  Much of the conference was devoted to genetically engineered trees, especially genetically engineered eucalyptus-modified to express particular profitable traits by inserting genes from other species into them.

The dominant use for these fast-growing eucalyptus trees that mature in 7 years, is for pulp.  With 27% of the global total, however, the US leads the world in pulp export, mainly from pine plantations in the Southeast.  Brazil comes in a distant Fourth with 8%.  Canada and China are #2 and #3 with 12% and 10% respectively.  But Brazil plans to triple its eucalyptus pulp production in the next 10 years.  To "stay competitive," companies in the US are working to develop cold-tolerant genetically engineered eucalyptus trees that would be grown in massive plantations from Texas to Florida and up into Arkansas and South Carolina.

This expansion will require vast acreages of land. International Paper was quoted as estimating that use of GE eucalyptus will double the acreage of land in plantations in the US from 42 million to 84 million acres.  Millions of acres of land will need to be converted from its current form (as native forests, agricultural lands, ranch lands) into industrial-scale GE eucalyptus plantations.

Industry calls these "planted forests."  There is no such thing as a "planted forest." There are forests, and there are timber plantations and one bears no resemblance to the other-not ecologically; not in terms of carbon storage capacity (forests are rich in carbon, plantations are not), not for biodiversity, and not for the ability to provide for the needs of forest dependent communities.  Saying a plantation is a forest is like saying a cornfield is a prairie.

The confusion between the two is intentional. It allows expansion of industrial timber plantations to be called "reforestation" "afforestation" or even "sustainable forest management," and clouds the ability to determine exactly how much forest is being lost every year.  With the global focus on reducing deforestation as a means to curb climate change, these inaccurate definitions are incredibly detrimental to forests and climate mitigation.

Photo: Petermann/GJEP-GFCIn addition to increasing production, GE eucalyptus trees are also being engineered for higher wood quality and wood density, and for freeze tolerance.  Freeze tolerance is key because at present eucalyptus cannot tolerate freezing temperatures, which severely limits their range.  In the US they can only grown in parts of California and southern Florida.  With the freeze tolerance gene, they can grow eucalyptus in temperatures down to 16°F-which means they can be grown across the southern US.

Why grow GE trees?  Here are some of industry's arguments:

1) Increasing the productivity of eucalyptus or poplar trees will grow more wood on less land (ArborGen's motto) and therefore protect native forests. 

No it won't.  Because faster growing GE trees are even more profitable than non-GMO plantation trees, they create increased incentives for landowners to convert their forests to plantations.  Already most plantations grow where native ecosystems once stood-whether forest or grassland.  As demand for wood increases (for ethanol, electricity, heat and bioproducts), the forests will be cut down and replaced with "high productivity" plantations.

2) GMO trees reduce the need for chemicals. 

This is completely untrue.  Industry argues that GE insect-resistant trees (like Bt poplars) will not need to be sprayed with pesticides, but that is only because the entire tree is a pesticide-every bit of it, from the leaves to the roots to the pollen.  This insecticide then enters and wreaks havoc in the soils, gets into water, and blows around in the wind in the pollen, so that wildlife and people that inhale it have the pesticide directly enter their bloodstream by way of their lungs.  In addition, GE trees that are engineered to be "RoundUp Ready" will have the exact same result as RoundUp ready GMO crops-the amount of herbicide used on them will massively increase, and the threat of herbicide resistant weeds will spread.

Photo: Petermann/GJEP-GFC3) GMO trees will help us with climate adaptation. 

Nothing will help our forests with climate adaptation except halting climate disruption by curtailing the emission of greenhouse gases; and ensuring that native forests are maintained in large interconnected tracts so that species can migrate and adapt as needed to the changing climate.  Plantations are not in the equation.  In fact, plantations store only about ¼ the carbon of native forests, so expanding plantations actually worsens climate change.  In addition, eucalyptus trees are explosively flammable, due to the highly volatile compounds they contain.  So in addition to sequestering less carbon, they actually threaten forests and the climate by increasing the threat of firestorms.

But whether GMO or not, eucalyptus plantations are destructive.  In addition to the problems listed above, eucalyptus are highly invasive.  Making them cold-tolerant means they can escape and colonize new ecosystems in colder climates.  Rapidly increasing their productivity increases their need for fertilizers (which are petroleum-based and contribute to climate change) and ground water, causing even more severe impacts-especially in Texas, which is already experiencing severe drought.  Engineering them to be cold tolerant also enables plantations to be developed in colder regions across the globe, meaning conversion of even more forests to plantations at exactly the time when we need native forests more than ever.

The STOP GE Trees Campaign has joined forces with the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Biological Diversity to sue the USDA over their approval of a request by GE tree company ArborGen (jointly owned by timber giants International Paper, MeadWestvaco and Rubicon) to plant an unprecedentedly large series of test plots from Texas to Florida.  These test plots would include over a quarter of a million GE cold tolerant eucalyptus trees, which would be allowed to flower and produce seeds.  The case is expected to be heard this fall.

View an amazing photo essay from the trip to Brazil and the field trip at the conference, click here

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Learn more or contact Anne Petermann at the website of the Stop GE Tress Campaign

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The Paper Planet is a forum for diverse views and the opinions expressed are those of the contributor of the article, and not necessarily the view of all member orgizations or of the Environmental Paper Network.

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