Genetically Engineered "Factory Trees": Sustainable Way Forward or Dangerous Diversion?

Center for Food Safety (CFS) is pleased to offer a new report, Genetically
Engineered Trees: The New Frontier of Biotechnology
, which explores potential ecological and socioeconomic hazards of
genetically engineered (GE) trees.

As you may know, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering whether
to allow unrestricted planting of the first GE forest tree: eucalyptus
engineered by ArborGen to grow in colder climates. If approved, this would
allow eucalyptus to be grown throughout the Southeast for the first time,
where short-rotation plantations would be established to provide pulp for
paper and biomass for energy.

A variety of other GE trees are in the research pipeline, suggesting that
“factory forests” are on the horizon.

Energy, paper and pulp, and biotechnology companies promote GE trees under a
banner of environmental sustainability. However, the opposite is true. GE
trees will facilitate expansion of monoculture tree plantations that require
fertilizers and pesticides, use high amounts of water, reduce biodiversity,
and can increase greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

Here are some key findings of the report:

* GE eucalyptus plantations will likely be grown to respond to the
burgeoning demand for wood pellets. Already the largest exporter of wood
pellets, the US ships them to the EU to co-fire power plants in efforts to
reduce sulfur dioxide emissions and mitigate climate change. However, while
using wood pellet biomass may reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, emerging
science reveals that burning wood pellets increases other pollutants and may
not reduce GHGs over the long term.

* GE eucalyptus tree plantations will intensify scarcity of fresh water
resources in the southeast. A US 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.

* 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. But lignin maintains structural integrity of trees and
helps repel pests and pathogens, among other benefits. Forest health could
be seriously compromised if the GE altered-lignin trait is passed on to
closely related wild forest trees.

* Special attributes of trees make them particularly susceptible to
transgenic contamination. For instance, trees have long life spans and
produce large quantities of pollen and seeds that are often dispersed over
great distances.

* Proponents claim that GE tree plantations will protect forests. However,
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. Increasing
demand for palm oil —used for a range of products from cosmetics to foods,
and more recently, biofuels—creates economic incentives to replace forests
with plantations.

The bottom line is that GE trees will accelerate and expand large-scale,
chemical-centric, monoculture plantations stocked with proprietary GE trees.
While devastating to the environment, “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 boost from $25 million to $500 million in five years.

This report aims to increase awareness of potential harms that GE trees pose
and catalyze a visible civil society movement to address this growing
threat. As the report notes, we need to explore other alternatives to GE
trees before taking this path in the woods.

You can view the full report here
October 09, 2013