Outrage over US secret approval of GM trees

January 30, 2015 by Staff Reporter

There is widespread condemnation today of the US government’s decision to allow the first genetically engineered tree to be commercialised.

The GM loblolly pine has been legalised with no government or public oversight, with no assessment of its risks to the public or the environment, and without regard to overwhelming public opposition to GM trees.

According to the Campaign to STOP GE Trees, a secret letter from the USDA to GM tree company ArborGen, dated last August, was recently exposed by scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Center for Food Safety.

In this letter, the USDA made the unprecedented decision to allow ArborGen to pursue unregulated commercial cultivation of a loblolly pine genetically engineered for altered wood composition. These trees could be planted anywhere in the US, without public knowledge or access to information about them.

Gurian-Sherman argues the USDA “is deliberately thumbing its nose at the public” with this decision, pointing out that this is probably the biggest environmental regulatory change in the US since the early 1990s.

Irreversible, irresponsible

Loblolly pines are native across 14 states throughout the US Southeast, and are grown in plantations around the world. Their pollen is known to travel for hundreds of miles.

In 2013, when the USDA called for public comments on another ArborGen request to commercialize a GM eucalyptus tree (a decision still pending), they received comments at the rate of 10,000 to one opposing the industry request. By simply refusing to regulate this new GM pine, the USDA has cut the public out of the process completely.

“If these GE [genetically engineered] loblolly pines are released on a large scale in the US, there will be no way to stop them from cross contaminating native loblolly pines,” said biologist Dr. Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch. “This is deliberate, irreversible and completely irresponsible contamination of the environment with unknown and possibly devastating consequences. Forest ecosystems are barely understood, and the introduction of trees with genes for modified wood characteristics could have all manner of negative impacts on soils, fungi, insects, wildlife, songbirds, and public health. And all this for short term commercial profit.”

International implications

Many are also worried about the international implications of this USDA decision. Winnie Overbeek, International Coordinator of the Uruguay-based World Rainforest Movement states, “We are greatly concerned that these unregulated GE pines could be shipped to Brazil or other countries without public, or maybe even government, knowledge, further promoting the expansion of industrial tree plantations in the Global South. This contributes to deforestation and affects indigenous and peasant communities worldwide who depend on forests for survival.”

Global Justice Ecology Project’s Ruddy Turnstone from Florida remarks, “ArborGen and the government may think they have won this round, but there is already a huge anti-GMO movement. There are also forest protection groups, Indigenous Peoples, birders, foresters, scientists, parents, hikers, and many others who do not want the forests contaminated by GE trees. A great many of them will take action to ensure these trees are never planted.”

All for cheaper paper

Experimental GM trees are generally engineered to make them more suitable for production of paper or biofuels, by reducing the amount of lignin they contain. Removing lignin from wood pulp is expensive, so the GM trees are essentially a cos- cutting exercise for the paper industry rather than having any inherent benefit to the gneral public or indeed the trees themselves.

Indeed, it is argued that reductions in lignin may compromise the structural integrity of the plant producing ‘floppy trees’ but also making it more susceptible to pathogens and disease, which in turn would require even higher pesticide use than on traditional plantations.

While GM trees are not yet planted in the UK experimental trials have taken place in the US, Canada, Europe and Brazil.

Poplar, pine and eucalyptus are most often used for these GM tree experiments. Fruit trees and walnut and chestnut trees have also been used.

Insect-resistant poplar trees are already grown in China and indeed biotech companies are targeting developing countries as the most likely places to plant these experimental trees.

And now GM grass too

The new GM trees aren’t the only way that GM could potentially infiltrate our forests and fields.

In the US Monsanto and Scotts have begun testing the first genetically modified grass, intended for both consumer and commercial use.

Like the new GM trees, the Roundup-Ready Kentucky Bluegrass, is unregulated, will not be labelled “GMO” (genetically modified organisms). It is genetically engineered to withstand massive amounts of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, and because of the ease with which grass spreads, could quickly contaminate lawns, parks, golf courses and pastures everywhere.

Grass seeds spread quickly and can easily cross pollinate with native grasses. As with trees this GMO pollution is unseen and impossible to control.

Non-edible GM plants are thought to be one way to get around public opposition to GMOs. However, one major concern with GM grass is that, in areas where GM grass is grown GM grass could contaminate pastureland and organic farmers who want to grass feed their beef, can’t do it because their grass is genetically modified, which is prohibited in organic standards.

What is more, the greater spread of pesticides from these types of GM plants will increase our exposure to then through soil and water and overspray into neighbouring farms and fields. Higher use of pesticides will also affect beneficial insects such as pollinators, reducing their populations and therefore threatening the food supply.