Multi-billion dollar timber corporations are investing millions into GE trees research and development. International Paper, MeadWestvaco and Rubicon are partners in ArborGen and fund research through public universities across this country. As a result, the U.S. leads the world in the development of GE trees technology and has carried out over 350 outdoor test plots of GE trees mainly in the U.S. South, Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. South Carolina, where ArborGen is headquartered, leads the way, with nearly 100 outdoor test plots.
This is of great concern across the continent due to the enormous distances tree pollen and seeds are known to travel. Researchers at Duke University in North Carolina conducted pollen modeling studies in 2004 that demonstrated pollen from trees in North Carolina traveling in air currents all the way into eastern Canada. The predominance of GE tree test plots throughout the Southeast threatens forests all along the east coast.
The years 2006-2009 are critical for stopping GE trees. ArborGen announced in the fall of 2005 that they were shifting from research to marketing. GE tree promoters have been waging an aggressive public relations campaign, with numerous articles touting the “benefits” of GE trees coming out in the past few years.
The trees closest to commercial development are GE cold tolerant, fast growing low lignin eucalyptus for cellulosic ethanol production and fast growing insect resistant low lignin poplar for paper or ethanol.
Insect resistant poplars contain the bacterial toxin Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in every cell. Bt kills both beneficial and pest insects, and harms wildlife that feed on those insects, such as songbirds. Pest insects may become immune to the toxin rapidly, leading to applications of increasingly toxic chemical pesticides. Bt exudes through the roots, disrupting soil ecology and contaminating water. Preliminary investigations indicate that inhalation of Bt pollen may cause allergic and immune system reactions in humans. Widespread dispersal of Bt pollen from GE trees could lead to serious health impacts, particularly on nearby communities.
Trees engineered for reduced lignin are easier to manufacture into paper and ethanol. However, they are more susceptible to disease, insects and environmental stresses and rot more quickly—releasing CO2 and damaging soil structure. They will likely require significant inputs of pesticides. Escape of the low-lignin trait into forests will lead to increased forest mortality and ecosystem disruptions and will exacerbate global warming.
Fast-growing GE trees will accelerate soil and water depletion and escape of this gene could lead to engineered trees out-competing native trees for nutrients and water as well as other unpredictable impacts.
Scientists researching sterility in GE trees have admitted that achieving 100% sterile trees is probably impossible. If released commercially, there is no way to stop the irreversible escape of GE tree pollen and seeds into native forests. In China, the only country that has GE trees plantations, the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science has reported that Bt poplar plantations are already contaminating native poplars. This is proof positive that GE trees must not be released anywhere else.
Genetically engineered trees are now being aggressively promoted as a promising feedstock for future production of cellulosic ethanol, one of the so-called second generation agrofuels.
Companies like ArborGen argue that production of high-output, fast-growing GE trees will protect forests by growing more wood on less land. However, studies show that development of existing monoculture tree plantations has been a major cause of deforestation around the world as native forests lands are cleared (often burned) to make room for tree plantations. The massive increase in demand for wood that would accompany the production of cellulosic ethanol would greatly accelerate this conversion of biodiverse native forests rich in carbon into biologically sterile tree plantations that store comparatively little carbon. This in turn, would further contribute to global climate change.
Beyond the direct impacts of GE tree contamination, are the indirect impacts on forests of pursuing an energy strategy that features wood as a major source of future energy supplies.
The pine plantations of the Southeast US are the world’s largest source of paper pulp. These same plantations are slated to become one of the primary sources for future US ethanol supplies. Georgia, for example, wants to become the “Saudi Arabia of agrofuels” using their pine plantations.
The overall impact of transitioning the world’s number one source for paper pulp into a supplier of ethanol is easy to predict. As plantations in the US are diverted to ethanol, the demand for paper pulp will be met by deforestation elsewhere. Combined with the threat of GE tree contamination, cellulosic ethanol is a major threat to forests and forest-dependent peoples worldwide.
This scheme also has implications for the US. Once the existing pine plantations are cut, industry plans to replace them with plantations of faster growing, GE eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus is favored for monoculture tree plantations around the world. However, in the US their temperature requirements have restricted them to coastal and southern California, where they are being actively eradicated. GE tree company ArborGen has devised a eucalyptus that can survive in temperatures as low as -20ºc. This greatly expands the potential range of eucalyptus plantations, as well as the area where eucalyptus can invade. Eucalyptus are notoriously destructive, known for being water-intensive, invasive and fire-prone. Other emerging research has identified eucalyptus as a host to a deadly pathogenic fungus, Cryptococcus gatii, that can cause fatal fungal meningitis in wildlife or humans that inhale its spores. Large plantations of GE eucalyptus will be disastrous.