Over 250,000 Americans and 500 organizations submitted comments rejecting the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposal to approve genetically-engineered eucalyptus trees for planting. If approved, the trees would be planted in seven southern states.
Public comments on the USDA’s draft environmental impact statement (dEIS) closed on Wednesday. The agency will now evaluate the comments for a final review on whether to approve the GE trees.
Activists from the South Pacific Islands, Southern Asia and North and South America weighed in, rejecting all genetically-engineered trees, including field trials.
Critics of the dEIS said the USDA downplayed the risks posed by the GE trees. The agency predicts GE eucalyptus plantations would cover over 1 million across seven states from coastal South Carolina to eastern Texas.
The GE eucalyptus trees, developed by biotech companies such as FuturaGene and ArborGen, are designed to tolerate freezing temperatures and to help feed demand for pulp and paper production, biomass pellets for electricity and fuel for cars.
Anne Petermann, executive director at the Global Justice Ecology Project, said the tradition has been for the government to rubberstamp genetically-engineered organisms “but this would be the first time they are approving a genetically-engineered forest tree.”
She said ArborGen asked for approval to legalize the trees six years ago.
“They (USDA) are really taking their time with it becuase they know there is overwhelming public opposition to [the plan],” Petermann told RT.
Petermann said there is a lack of independent research on the long-term, or even short-term, consequences of putting genetically-engineered trees out into the environment, and that the risks could be significant.
“We are talking about forest ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years,” Petermann said. “Planting eucalyptus trees, with mutations in their genomes – how are these organisms going to interact with the forest? How are they going to interact with soil micro-organisms? Those studies have not been done, and that is one of the major points in the comments.”
Petermann said if the studies were to be done they would have to be carried out over the full life of the tree, between 50 to 100 years. As that is not likely to happen, she said “there is no way to know the full scope of the risks.”
Eucalyptus trees are the number one industrial tree plantation used in Latin America, Africa and Asia, traditionally in tropical areas, where commerce appreciates their fast growth and versatility.
“The forest products industry is worth $400 billion a year. This technology is worth billions of dollars a year. If you can increase yields by 40 percent, you can greatly reduce prices. Eucalyptus today are harvested at seven years – in Brazil we are looking to produce the same sized trees in five and a half years,” Stanley Hirsch, chief executive of the Israeli biotech company FuturaGene, told the Guardian in 2012 over its plans to plant GM eucalyptus in Brazil.
Documented as an invasive species around the world, the trees have escaped the limits of their plantations in South Africa and shown up in native grasslands, and in Chile where they are showing up in the forests.
In the US, the trees only grow in Southern Florida and California, hence the need for a genetically-engineered variety to withstand temperature variations in other states.
Petermann said another red flag is wildfires. She points to the massive wildlife that hit Portugal last month that left 60 people dead, and one that happened in Chile in January. Both were fed by eucalyptus plantations.
“Eucalyptus is extremely flammable,” said Petermann. “Combine that with dry conditions, which these trees exacerbate because they drink so much, you end with these incredible firestorms. The US southeast is already experiencing repeated droughts, it is already experiencing heatwaves, it is the last place to plant a eucalyptus plantation.”
Among other commentators was former NASA scientist Kate Cato, who lives in the US south and has mapped parts of Mars. She said it was clear that the planet once had rivers and great amounts of water, and possibly an atmosphere similar to ours, “but a global catastrophe had happened.”
She said the effects of invasive species such as kudzu, lionfish and Australian pines have already caused chaos in the southern states where they lack predators and displace native plants and animals, and already cost the states millions of dollars in losses and eradication.