Genetically engineered trees under USDA consideration could harm environment

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As the US Department of Agriculture considers whether to authorize the unrestricted planting of genetically engineered Eucalyptus trees experts are warning that such a policy would not only be unnatural, but negatively impact the environment.

The GE tree is primarily developed by ArborGen, a biotechnology  corporation that has been met with protests in recent months, to  provide materials to create paper and the wood pellets that fuel  power plants around the world. Despite the trees’ propensity for  cooler climates, ArborGen has sought to promote the trees’ growth  in the south eastern US under the notion that they will help the  environment sustain itself.

Yet a new report from the Center for Food Safety titled   “Genetically Engineered Trees: The New Frontier of Biotechnology”   details how GE trees could increase greenhouse gas emission and  reduce biodiversity.

Commercializing GE trees could be devastating to the  environment,” Debbie Barker, international program director  for the Center for Food Safety, told Eco Watch. “Factory  forests’ will accelerate and expand large-scale,  chemical-intensive, monoculture plantations. We need to  understand the risks in order to determine if GE trees are a  sustainable way forward or a dangerous diversion.”

Among the concerns laid out in the report is the immediate risk  GE trees would pose to natural trees in the surrounding area. Not  only are they expected to suck up at least twice as much water as  normal trees, but GE trees are also known for their ability to  spread seeds and pollens over great distances. If wild trees  become contaminated they could be more vulnerable to pests and  pathogens, thus risking the life span of natural US forests. The  GE trees would also require substantial amounts of fertilizers  and pesticides as well.

Eucalyptus is the first forest tree now being considered for  approval for unrestricted planting, but some of the largest  biotechnology, paper and energy corporations are experimenting on  pine, poplar, chestnut and several varieties of fruit,” said  Barker, who also edited the report.

Despite these and other warnings, biotech corporations have a  strong incentive to argue against any environmental objections.  If GE eucalyptus is approved, according to Eco Watch, ArborGen  expects that company profits will explode from $25 million to  $500 million in just five years.

Another red flag for the Center for Food Safety is the assertion  that burning wood pellets slows climate change. The report  acknowledges that the method, which involves selling European  stumps to European companies so they can keep power plants  running 24 hours a day, helps cut down on the number of sulfur  emissions. But more recent research has found that burning wood  pellets likely increases the presence of other pollutants.

The USDA will consider the adoption of GE tree planting despite  what environmental advocates say are scientific risks, and  questions about the integrity of government’s scrutiny over  ArborGen.

Rachel Smolker, co-director of the environmental advocacy group  Biofuelwatch, wrote a column in The Huffington Post earlier this  year alleging that vested commercial interests made rigorous  evaluation of the biotech’s venture unlikely.

Perhaps in part it is a response to the fact that ArborGen  has succeeded in placing key personnel within positions in  agencies such as the USDA and Department of Education where these  decisions are made also,” she wrote. “Also, it is clear that  the entire awesome weight of the biomass juggernaut comes into  play.”

Subsidies are flowing into the construction of hundreds of  bioenergy ‘renewable energy’ projects, including plans to convert  massive coal plants to burn biomass, efforts to convert wood into  ethanol and other transport fuels, as well as a suite of other  biomass based chemicals and products,” Smolker continued.   “The demand, and the potentially massive profits to be made,  are altogether clear.”