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Overwhelming Opposition to USDA Proposal to Legalize Genetically Engineered Eucalyptus Trees

10 Aug, 2017
Posted in Blog, Climate, Climate change, environment

Quarter of a Million People Say NO to First-Ever GE Forest Tree

*Photo by Orin Langelle of the wildfires in Chile

By: Anne Petermann

As a result of a national coalition effort including forest protection groups, Indigenous Peoples Organizations, anti-GMO and food safety groups, and climate justice organizations and including scientists, foresters, and ecologists, well over a quarter of a million people (280,000) and 600 organizations submitted comments yesterday 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.

While ArborGen originally submitted the petition to legalize their GE eucalyptus trees in January 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dd not release their draft Environmental Impact Statement (dEIS) proposing approval of these GE trees until April 2017. The USDA comment period on the dEIS ended on 5 July. The approval of these GE trees could set a precedent for future approval of GE forest trees such as poplar and pine.

The GE eucalyptus trees are engineered to tolerate freezing temperatures in order to greatly expand their growing range.  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 over one million acres across seven southern states—from coastal South Carolina to eastern Texas.

Establishment of GE eucalyptus plantations across this region would have devastating consequences. The region is home to a number of the poorest counties in the country, as well as some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.

“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, which led to major protests against the timber industry. 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. As has become standard operating procedure for agencies under Trump, the USDA made no mention of climate change impacts in its proposed approval of these GE eucalyptus trees.

“One of the major reasons GE eucalyptus plantations are being pushed is 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 as forests are cleared to make way for faster-growing plantations.”

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.  “The Southeast is being targeted for these GE eucalyptus trees not only because of the growing season, but because this is where land and labor are cheap and people are poor,” explained BJ McManama of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

“This exemplifies the unjust and unsustainable forestry model that people around the world have already long experienced.  There are hundreds of documented human rights abuses resulting from the unchecked expansion of eucalyptus plantations in Central and South America. These abuses demonstrate the forest industry’s blatant disregard for both people and the environment.”

In Chile and Brazil, Indigenous and traditional communities are rising up against eucalyptus and plantations–in some cases cutting them down.  They are protesting the loss of fresh water and the rising levels of sickness due to exposure to toxic agrochemicals used on the plantations.  In some cases, Indigenous Peoples that have been violently evicted from their ancestral lands for plantations are occupying these plantations and rebuilding their villages.

Here in the US, 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, NC.

In April of this year the USDA finally made public their draft findings recommending approval of ArborGen’s petition, eliciting yesterday’s unprecedented 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.”

The effort to stop genetically engineered trees is continuing to build momentum as the effort to stop GE eucalyptus trees moves into the next phase.

Anne Petermann is the Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project and the International Coordinator of the Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees.  She has been working to halt GE tree development since 1999.