By Anne Petermann, for the GJEP Team
GE poplars coming to a forest near you? There is a disturbing new push to transform forests in the Pacific Northwest into GE tree plantations to feed new bioenergy refineries.
Last week US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced it was making a grant of $136 million–its largest grant ever– to several universities and private companies in the Pacific Northwest to promote development of a Northwest “biofuels” industry.
According to an article titled, “UW, WSU to get $80M to Develop Biofuels” in the Seattle Times, this grant is designed to build a new industry that “would be churning out fuel from trees” in the next five years. They quoted Vilsack, stating, “I’d bet my life on it.”
The grant has several components, including the development of “fast growing poplars” that could mature in just a few years. The University of Washington plans to develop 400,000 acres of these poplars across the Northwest.
Another article titled, “Pacific Northwest Forests Offer Biomass Bounty” in the Western Farm Press, states that the same grant provides over a half million dollars for Oregon State University to investigate use of genetically engineered trees for dedicated energy plantations. Most of the research into GE trees at OSU focuses on poplars.
This suggests that the ultimate goal of the grant is the development of industrial-scale genetically engineered poplar plantations as bioenergy feedstocks. This is highly troubling since this grant was provided by the USDA–which is the same agency that would review any applications requesting permission to grow GE trees commercially. GE trees are not yet legal to grow on a commercial scale in the US.
Also troubling is the fact that in June, David Nothmann, the Vice President of Business and Product Development for GE tree company ArborGen, was named to serve on the Biomass Research and Development Technical Advisory Committee which is jointly administered by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the USDA. Prior to ArborGen, Nothmann spent thirteen years at Monsanto.
Because of this obvious conflict of interest of the USDA with regard to genetically engineered trees, any requests for commercial release of GE trees will likely result in years of lawsuits to stop them.
This threat of lawsuits, according to an article in Biomass Power & Thermal Magazine, is “representing a tremendous deterrent to investment in [biotechnology], especially on the biomass side, where a lot of them are start-up companies. It’s making it very hard to get investments [when] you’re going to have to deal with [5-10 years of] litigation. It is creating a huge barrier.”
Other OSU research will study forest health and hazard reduction. This could indicate that researchers are also looking into use of trees killed or damaged by the western pine beetle as sources of woody biomass. This is backed up by another article published on September 29th in the Denver Post, titled “Beetle-Kill Pine, Other Wood Pushed as Power Source and way to Aid Ailing Colorado Forests,” which announced a new consortium that is looking at using beetle-killed trees as wood for fuel.
Global Justice Ecology Project’s position is that there is no sustainable way to replace fossil fuels with plants at the scale at which they are used in the US. An article in Science Magazine “Implications of Limiting CO2 Concentration for Land Use and Energy” from 2009 demonstrates this. The article points out that the predicted rise in global demand for wood-based electricity alone would require the total conversion of native forests and grasslands to biomass plantations by 2065.