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GE tree giant ArborGen has received permission from the USDA to take the next step toward implementing their plans to develop non-native genetically engineered cold tolerant eucalyptus trees.  Eucalyptus is widely known for its extreme flammability.  In areas of California, invasive eucalyptus are being eradicated for this very reason.

In addition to the flammability problem, eucalyptus are highly invasive.  ArborGen has received permission to allow their field trial of cold tolerant eucalyptus to flower and produce seeds, which could easily lead to eucalyptus escaping the test plot to establish itself elsewhere.

This is particularly of concern in the region where the field trial is.  The field trial is located near Mobile Bay in an area historically impacted by severe storms.  These storms could spread seeds and vegetative matter from the eucalyptus to areas far from the field trial.  Eucalyptus can be grown from both seeds and cuttings.  Once established, eucalyptus is extremely difficult to eradicate.

In other parts of the world where eucalyptus plantations have been established, eucalyptus can be found colonizing ecosystems outside of the plantation boundaries.

Scientists and environmental groups sent a letter to federal agencies requesting an investigation concerning the public health and environmental risks of a pathogenic fungal organism Cryptococcus gattii associated with certain Eucalyptus tree species.

They are asking the U.S. Departments of Health & Human Services, Agriculture, Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency to determine if the hazardous pathogen is present in genetically engineered (GE) Eucalyptus trees being grown by GE Tree company ArborGen in Alabama. Signatories of the letter included the Sierra Club, Global Justice Ecology Project, Center for Food Safety, Dogwood Alliance, and Southern Forest Network.

“We know the Cryptococcus gattii pathogen is associated with Eucalyptus trees in other countries and a federal investigation is urgently needed to fully assess ArborGen’s proposed Alabama outdoor field trials of genetically engineered Eucalyptus,” stated Dr. Neil Carman of the Sierra Club. “The chief concern is that the USDA in its Environmental Assessment completely failed to conduct an evaluation or consultation with other agencies regarding the potential of Cryptococcus gattii to be present in or to become established in the newly introduced Eucalyptus trees.  Federal officials must conduct a thorough investigation in view of the pathogenic characteristics of Cryptococcus gattii and observed abilities for spores to be transported through the environment via multiple pathways,” he continued.

Dr. Rachel Smolker, a research biologist with Global Justice Ecology Project, stated, “Cryptococcus gattii is considered by the Centers for Disease Control as an ’emerging infectious disease.’ Inhalation of spores causes respiratory and central nervous system infection leading to fatal fungal meningitis. It affects other mammalian species in addition to humans.”  Dr. Smolker added, “Cases of C. gattii disease are increasing and spreading geographically, possibly associated with the introduction of Eucalyptus species worldwide. C. gattii has been isolated from  Eucalyptus in India, Spain, Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, Africa, Mexico, Southeast Asia and California.”

ArborGen petitioned the US Department of Agriculture (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service or APHIS) in 2006 for permission to extend their GE Eucalyptus field trials to allow flowering and seed production in 355 GE Eucalyptus hybrid trees grown on 1.1 acres in Baldwin County, Alabama close to the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

APHIS has conducted an inadequate Environmental Assessment (EA) for public comment in which they recommend approval to extend the GE Eucalyptus field trials by ArborGen to allow this unprecedented flowering and seed formation of a genetically engineered tree species.

Additional arguments against this ArborGen field trial include:

* Approval of this field trial represents precedent setting approval for the first outdoor field trial release on the mainland US of GE Eucalyptus trees that allow flowering and seed formation in young trees. Once this GE tree flowering and seed production is allowed on the US mainland, it will be easier for APHIS to approve outdoor field trial releases of other GE trees for flowering and seed production.

* Because ArborGen will not confirm the genetically engineered traits of these trees, we cannot evaluate the full threats they pose. This makes the submission of full and thorough comments impossible.

* APHIS failed to conduct and prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to comprehensively address all relevant issues related to the proposed GE Eucalyptus field trials.

* Eucalyptus species are introduced organisms into the US and grow well in certain warm climates such as the southern and southeast US regions.

* Escape of GE Eucalyptus hybrids through seeds and vegetative plant material are quite likely due to severe wind and rain events which APHIS failed to assess in the EA. In other countries where eucalyptus have been introduced, they are well known for escaping and colonizing native ecosystems.

* ArborGen’s Baldwin County, Alabama field trial site is prone to impacts from severe storm events such as tornadoes and hurricanes that could blow GE eucalyptus seeds over long distances.

* APHIS failed to evaluate these severe storm events in the EA and should have performed an EIS to fully review regional weather phenomena on the field trials location and document high potential for escape of the seeds and vegetative material of GE Eucalyptus hybrids.

* Global warming and climate change will allow more extensive southern and southeast regions of the US to have weather patterns conducive to the introduction and propagation of escaped GE Eucalyptus hybrids, which APHIS failed to consider in the EA.

* In regions where droughts occur, eucalyptus are known to be at high risk of catching fire. The Southeast US is currently in the midst of such a drought. Additionally, eucalyptus plantations have been documented to deplete ground water and cause or exacerbate drought situations. None of these potential impacts were evaluated in the EA.

* With recent federal court decisions on genetically engineered perennial organisms like the GE bentgrass and GE alfalfa, for example, there is a growing legal foundation around the potential escape of perennial GE organisms even in field trials.

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