Genetically Engineered Trees in the Southern United States

Genetically Engineered Trees in the Southern United States
April 2004
Presentation Compiled by Compiled by WildLaw

Genetic Engineering

"Genetic engineering refers to a set of technologies that are being used to change the genetic makeup of cells and move genes across species boundaries to produce novel organisms. The techniques involve highly sophisticated manipulations of genetic material and other biologically important chemicals."

Union of Concerned Scientists

Common Terms

GE= Genetically engineered
GM= Genetically modified=GE
GMO= Genetically modified organism
Transgenic= containing artificially-inserted genes
Biotechnology= the practical use of living organisms to perform tasks (GE & non-GE)
Hybrid= produced using traditional crossbreeding (NOT GE)

"Contrary to the arguments made by some proponents, genetic engineering is far from being a minor extension of existing breeding technologies. It is a radically new technology for altering the traits of living organisms by inserting genetic material that has been manipulated by artificial means." "As with any new technology, the full set of risks associated with genetic engineering have almost certainly not been identified. " Union of Concerned Scientists

Trees are being genetically engineered for:

Decreased lignin levels & Altered lignin biosynthesis
Altered development & growth rate
Altered flowering & fertility
Herbicide tolerance
Insect resistance
Marker genes
"Heavy metal bioremediation"
Altered cell walls
Constitutive expression of glutamine synthetase (related to nitrogen intake and growth rate)

Native trees being engineered:
Focus on pulp production from local species:

Risks Posed by GE Trees:
Genetic "drift"
Increased herbicide exposure
Decreased genetic diversity
Property rights and liability issues
Socioeconomic impacts
Gene Drift
Jim Hamrick, University of Georgia

The largest threat posed by GE trees is the high likelihood of gene drift- cross breeding between GE crop trees and wild relatives. Scientists don't have enough information to precisely predict the impact of GE trees on wild populations. A study of the natural flow of genes among trees indicates that escapes will happen. It is safe to conclude that crosses will occur between GE trees and wild trees and that crosses could occur at distances greater than a kilometer from the source populations. Predicting and monitoring any migrations poses problems.

Gene Drift in Agriculture
A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that seeds of traditional varieties of corn, soybeans, and canola are pervasively contaminated with low levels of DNA sequences derived from transgenic varieties. Transgenically derived DNA was detected in 50 percent of the corn, 50 percent of the soybean, and 83 percent of the canola varieties tested. While corresponding contamination levels may be lower in the total seed supply, the results show that genetic drift is occurring rapidly- commercial production of these crops did not begin until the mid-90's.

Gene Drift in Native Trees
Risks to forests are much more dramatic. In agriculture, we have developed engineered varieties of plant species that do not occur naturally in the U.S. Forestry applications are focused on pine and poplar- native trees that are vital to our native forest ecosystems and are the foundation of our local forest products industry.

National Research Council Report
"GE with trees presents a special challenge in that trees are often dominant species in their ecosystems and support a large web of organisms that either directly or indirectly rely on them as the ultimate source of nutrients."

"Many biosafety issues, and the unique opportunities that genetic engineering provides for tree research and improvement, have been discussed in terms of the extent to which trees should be regulated or whether their release should be permitted at all"


We are facing long-term impacts resulting in widespread occurrences of sterility, lack of lignin content, and pesticide production in pine and poplar trees in the wild.
Gene drift in pine and poplars will have immeasurable and unpredictable consequences for our forests, wildlife, and communities. Once gene drift occurs, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to identify and monitor all occurrences. Scientists are working to develop "marker genes" that produce particular characteristics in trees with GE properties, such as leaves that turn a certain color. However, long term testing would also be required for these technologies. We cannot predict the genetic changes that will occur as a result of varying gene combinations over many generations. It is entirely possible that trees with GE characteristics will not only persist and contaminate the genetic makeup of entire ecosystems, but will also become invasive plants that are able to out-compete native plants or directly destroy native organisms. This is especially likely in trees engineered to be faster-growing and deadly to insects. Gene drift under natural reproductive conditions would increase exponentially.

Assessing Risks

The impacts of gene drift on our native forest ecosystems are nearly impossible to assess. Scientists say that the greatest difficulty in assessing risks is that GE techniques are so new, and our understanding of how minute changes in genes is so limited, that scientists do not even know what to look for.
Scientists admit that the only way to adequately determine the consequences of inevitable gene drift are long term tests. Because the lifespan of trees is so long, and thorough testing would require observation over several generations, long term testing would probably require a minimum of 15-20 years.

"Given the rates of gene flow observed in tree species, it is safe to conclude that crosses will occur between GMT [Genetically Modified Trees] and wild trees and that crosses could occur at distances greater than a kilometer from the source populations." Jim Hamrick, University of Georgia

Increased Herbicide Exposure

Crops genetically engineered to be resistant to chemical herbicides are tightly linked to the use of particular chemical pesticides.

According to a report from Iowa State University & Consumers Union

" When first introduced most of the crops needed up to 25% fewer chemicals for the first three years, but afterwards significantly more.
" In 2001, 5% more herbicides and insecticides were sprayed compared with crops of non-GM varieties; in 2002 7.9% more was sprayed; and in 2003 the estimated rise was 11.5%. During 2002-2003, an average of 29% more herbicide was applied per acre on GM maize.
" Decreasing genetic diversity
" Widespread release of GE trees could reduce overall genetic diversity in the landscape, increasing vulnerability to pests, disease, and unforeseen weaknesses.
" Widespread crop failures, as those witnessed when thousands of acres of planted pine were attacked in the recent pine beetle outbreak, are more likely to occur.

Impacts on Communities and Local Economies
Connor Bailey, Auburn University

The application of biotechnology to forestry promises to introduce dramatic changes which will have profound and largely negative impacts on most NIPF [Non-industrial Private Forestland] landowners and rural communities dependent on the forest products industry. Biotechnology will contribute to furtherance of a long-established trend towards concentration of economic power within the forest products sector. This concentration of power will come about through the application of proprietary rights over genetic material and expanded [corporate] holdings of land devoted to intensive production systems.
Rural communities dependent upon forestry resources where NIPF owners live will be adversely affected economically. The influence of absentee landowners disinclined to support public services will further erode the availability of social services. These factors will tend to erode the stability of rural communities.
Ecological effects associated with sterile populations of plantation-grown trees will adversely affect the quality of life in adjacent rural communities. Such plantations will also create limits to commercial and subsistence hunting or opportunities to promote nature-based tourism. Early adopters of forest biotechnology will bear relatively high risks associated with disease or insect problems that could sweep through plantations of genetically-identical trees. In the extreme case of widespread adoption, the economic viability of the forest product sector could become vulnerable to a rapid loss of supply, undermining regional economies
(end C Bailey)

Regulation of GE Trees

The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is the primary regulating agency for research and commercialization of GE plants. The EPA is also responsible for regulating pesticide-producing GE plants. APHIS and EPA are responsible for regulating field testing and deregulating GE products for commercialization.

More Regulation and Risk Assessment Are Needed
Laws covering genetic engineering are inadequate and do not provide appropriate protections. Some GE plants may not be covered by APHIS's current regulations.
Technically, the public can comment on the permits and notifications, but APHIS may or may not use the public input in its decision making. APHIS's risk assessments for notifications and field trials are not subjected to external scientific review or any other public input. Field tests on less that 10 acres can be exempted from EPA requirements for pesticide-producing plants.
Once a GE plant is deregulated, subsequent progeny of the plant are also deemed deregulated. The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences has raised particular concerns that "stacked genes" developed through the cross-breeding of two or more GE plants with different GE traits may pose new risks and should not necessarily be considered deregulated by APHIS.
It is not clear that APHIS currently has the authority to deny permits on the basis of past permit violations. To comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, federal agencies, in taking actions such as issuing permits, must first determine through an environmental assessment (EA) whether the proposed action would have a significant impact on the environment. If the agency cannot make such a finding, it is required by NEPA to issue an environmental impact statement (EIS). APHIS does not conduct EA's for field trials, only for commercialization, and has never conducted an EIS for any deregulation petition. APHIS regulations do allow the commercialization of a GE crop without a prior affirmative approval by the agency and without public notice. Developers are not required to file a petition for nonregulated status before they produce a plant commercially. It is possible for developers to grow plants at a commercial scale under notification or field trial permits, even if the plants might pose some identifiable environmental or human health risk. Since APHIS does not typically conduct an EA until the application for deregulation stage, in these situations APHIS would not have assessed the environmental impacts of planting at a larger scale and made an affirmative decision that larger-scale production would have no significant impact on the environment. Thus there is no opportunity for prior public notice or public comment.

When a crop is considered ready for commercialization, it is completely deregulated by APHIS. APHIS has no authority to monitor a deregulated GE crop after it has gone to market, and the manufacturer has no legal obligation to monitor or report unanticipated problems. A deregulation decision does not preclude APHIS from subsequently re-regulating a plant. APHIS may not have the legal authority to inspect, or require monitoring or data reporting on crops that have been deregulated.

Property Rights & Liability Issues
In agriculture, growers of GE crops are required to sign agreements that prohibit them from saving seed for the next crop- they must buy more seed the next year. Farmers who have saved seed or seed contaminated by GE plants have been successfully sued for patent infringement. If this policy carries over to trees, natural regeneration in stands of GE trees would be illegal. In addition, any landowner whose non-GE trees are fertilized by GE trees would be guilty of patent infringement.

Percy Schmeiser
Percy Schmeiser is a Canadian farmer who produced canola and was breeding new varieties. His crops were contaminated by Monsanto-produced GE canola, and the purity of the strains he developed was compromised with up to 68% contamination. Canada's Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Schmeiser is guilty of patent infringement. Monsanto has not been held accountable for damages to Schmeiser's property.

Who's Responsible?
No precedent has been set in U.S. courts deciding the question of who is liable when gene drift causes environmental damage or property damage to non-GE crops.

Citizens Initiatives
In 2001-2002, 158 pieces of legislation (139 bills and 19 resolutions) were introduced in 39 states. 66% of these initiatives required further study, control, regulation, labeling, and moratoriums on GE research, field testing, and production. Only 5% were designed to facilitate GE research.


The first state to bar the introduction of a GM plant or animal when it passed HB189 in 2001.
The bill requires a five-year ban on the release of GM fish in any state waterway connecting to another body of water.

Mendocino County voters recently approved an initiative banning the production of genetically engineered plants and animals.

Vermont is the first-in-the-nation to hold biotech corporations accountable for contamination by genetically engineered crops. 79 Vermont towns have passed Town Meeting measures calling on lawmakers in Montpelier and Washington, D.C. to enact a moratorium on GMOs. 10% of Vermont's conventional dairy farmers have pledged not to plant GE crops.

Why Worry?
There have been 90 documented field releases of GE poplar, pine and sweetgum in the South. 24 of these have "expired". 63% of the field tests in the U.S. are occurring in the South

South Carolina: 42% of all US releases (2/3 of all releases in the South)
Other Southern: 21%
Oregon: 25%
Other states: 12%

Agricultural Biotechnology Products Expected on the Market Within Six Years:
"Modified Lignin in Paper Pulp Trees" Source: Biotechnology Industry Organization Member Survey
Other forest plants being field tested:

7 field releases of Eucalyptus: in SC and FL
American Chestnut: in NY
Walnut trees: in CA
Rhododendron: in CT
Spruce: in WI
Service Berry
Fruit trees in various locations

Information Sources:

Biological Confinement of Genetically Engineered Organisms, National Research Council's Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Board on Agriculture, and Board on Life Sciences, 2004
Gone to Seed, Union of Concerned Scientists, 2004
Issues in the regulation of genetically engineered plants an animals, Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, 2004
Jim Hamrick, University of Georgia, Proceedings from the Biotech Branches Out: A Look at the Opportunities and Impacts of Forest Biotechnology meeting sponsored by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology in 2001.
Connor Bailey, Auburn University, Proceedings from the Biotech Branches Out: A Look at the Opportunities and Impacts of Forest Biotechnology meeting sponsored by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology in 2001.
USDA- Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service