The goal of our NO GE Trees Program is to protect native forests, and to defend the rights of forest dependent communities and Indigenous Peoples against the uncontrollable and irreversible threats posed by the release of genetically engineered trees (GE trees).
GE trees (sometimes called genetically modified trees (GM trees or GMO trees) are similar to other GMOs: Scientists manipulate the genetic material of trees by inserting DNA from an unrelated species to achieve desired results. Common desired traits are freeze tolerance, easier processing, and pest and disease resistance. Scientists have even engineered poplar (Populus spp.) trees to produce artificial rose fragrance.
Unlike traditional plant breeding methods, genetic engineering involves high-tech biotechnology including the transfer of genes from one species to another. The results are organisms with traits not found anywhere in nature, designed solely to meet the needs of industry. GE trees are relatively new, and are not yet planted on a large scale anywhere except China, where approximately 450 hectares of insect resistant black poplars were developed, though no records were kept.
GE trees are unlike GMO food crops in some very important ways: trees can live for decades to centuries; have seeds and pollen that can travel up to hundreds of miles; and have numerous wild relatives in native forests that could be contaminated. Conducting long-term risk assessments on organisms that could persist in the environment for decades is next to impossible. Such risk assessment isn’t even required for regulatory approval. These factors make GE trees a much greater threat than GMO food crops.
For all of these reasons, commercial plantations of GE trees pose an enormous threat to forests internationally. The threat of large-scale commercial plantations of GE trees for timber, pulp, bioenergy, and chemicals is quickly advancing. ArborGen is also developing GE eucalyptus in Brazil, as is their main competitor, Futuragene (owned by Suzano Paper, one of the world’s largest timber companies).
In 1999 International Paper (US), Fletcher Forests (NZ), WestVaco (US) and Monsanto partnered to create a pioneering tree biotechnology venture. Monsanto quickly backed out and in 2000, GE tree company ArborGen was formed. It is now jointly owned by International Paper (US), MeadWestvaco (US) and Rubicon (NZ). In 2002, ArborGen named Barbara Wells as its first CEO. Wells worked for Monsanto for eighteen years, overseeing its RoundUp Ready GE soy division in Brazil. She and many of ArborGen’s Executive staff were replaced in early 2012 after ArborGen attempted to go public on the NASDAQ in 2011, but rescinded their Initial Public Offering after a 2010 lawsuit against GE eucalyptus field trials increased investor wariness. The lawsuit was brought by the Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity, Global Justice Ecology Project, Dogwood Alliance and Sierra Club.
Current and former employees serve on various government advisory boards. Several ArborGen executives and scientists came from Monsanto.
Under the guise of conservation, the GE tree industry is trying to sell their risky science experiments to the public. Tree geneticists in New York are working to develop blight-resistant GE American chestnut trees. Blight resistance research is already well advanced via conventional breeding techniques.
ArborGen’s brand-name conservation system, FlexStand, does more to maximize profits than conserve forests. In fact, FlexStand encourages forest owners to continue using chemicals in their plantations, and to cash in on emerging domestic carbon and bioenergy markets. Posturing as “sustainable” forestry, this is little more than economic opportunism, soon to be enabled by faster growing GE eucalyptus trees.
GE eucalyptus is seen as a key species for emerging bioenergy markets. Demand for wood pellets has already been linked to increased clear-cutting of southern hardwood forests. Replacing fossil fuels with equally polluting biomass energy has grave consequences for southern forests and the global climate. According to ArborGen parent company Rubicon, ArborGen could sell half a billion GE eucalyptus seedlings every year for bioenergy plantations in the US South.
Using fast growing GE trees to supply pellet mills and biomass incinerators will release dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. While burning wood to create energy sounds sustainable, new science suggests that it will have a similar impact on the climate as burning coal. Fast growing plantations will also deplete soil nutrients, increasing the need for chemical fertilizers.
While ArborGen’s PR machine claims the solution to saving the world’s forests is to grow “more wood on less land,” plantations of fast growing GE trees will only worsen documented impacts of existing industrial tree plantations, including increased deforestation. In fact, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that between 1990 and 2010, the area of land covered by industrial tree plantations (including eucalyptus) in the Global South increased more than 50%, even though the plantations doubled the yield of wood per hectare.
While plantations might produce timber more efficiently, they don’t provide other benefits like medicinal plants, food and shelter for forest dependent communities. Nor do they provide ecological processes like water filtration, wildlife habitat and carbon sequestration as well as biodiverse forests. A much better solution is the restoration of natural, sustainably managed forests.
Tree biotech company ArborGen is seeking regulatory approval from the USDA for eucalyptus trees genetically engineered for cold tolerance. If granted approval, ArborGen plans to sell hundreds of millions of seedlings every year across the southeastern US, from Texas to South Carolina.
The USDA could issue a draft decision on ArborGen’s request at any time. USDA approval of GE eucalyptus trees would set a dangerous precedent that could lead to the legalization of GE versions of native forest trees, including poplar and pine, which would inevitably and irreversibly contaminate native forests with destructive GE traits, devastating forest ecosystems and wildlife. Once GE trees escape, there is no way to call them back.
The only way to stop GE trees from invading and contaminating US native forests is to ban the commercial release of GE trees before it is too late.
Global Justice Ecology Project and the STOP GE Trees Campaign are mobilizing to fight this threat.
For more on the dangers of GE trees and detailed information for your comments, read our GE trees fact sheet and other resources. You can also check out our GE Trees blog to read the latest on this important issue.