- Cross-posted from The Commercial Appeal, October 23, 2011
Environmentalists are vowing to continue their fight against genetically engineered “frankentrees” after losing a test case in Florida earlier this month.
“We’re not terribly discouraged,” said Anne Petermann, executive director of the Global Justice Ecology Project and the coordinator of the STOP GE Trees Campaign.
“We’ll wait until the next stage of the regulatory process and intervene there,” said Mike Stark, communications director for the Center for Biological Diversity, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that aimed to block field tests of genetically modified eucalyptus trees across the South.
The trees in question were developed by Arborgen, a joint venture of Memphis-based International Paper, MeadWestvaco Corp. and New Zealand-based Rubicon Ltd.
Industry expects the fight to continue.
Eucalyptus trees are not native to North America. They grow much quicker than native trees, but typically do not survive freezing temperatures. Arborgen has aimed to engineer hybrids that survive freezing weather and are sterile.
International Paper is interested in developing plantations of the fast-growing Australian hardwood throughout the southeastern U.S. to provide pulp for making paper and raw materials for biofuel refiners.
In May 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to allow the planting and flowering of 260,000 genetically engineered hybrids of eucalyptus trees at 28 test sites in seven southeastern states.
The Sierra Club blasted the decision as tantamount to commercial approval. Joining with the Center for Biological Diversity and four other environmental organizations, they challenged the approvals in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, alleging that they violated federal environmental regulations and decision-making rules.
On Oct. 6, U.S. Dist. Judge K. Michael Moore ruled against the environmentalists on every count. He rejected the argument that the large number of plantings allowed amounted to commercialization, then dismissed several of the environmentalists’ objections as irrelevant to a process for allowing limited scientific tests.
Reports from the Government Accountability Office and the USDA’s Office of Inspector General that criticized the department for poor management of field tests of genetically engineered organisms “have no bearing on this matter,” he ruled, because they did not address the specific field tests proposed for eucalyptus trees, but “only the agency’s handling of genetically engineered organisms generally.”
Stark said the next step would be to wait until the USDA takes up Arborgen’s petition to deregulate the genetically engineered eucalyptus hybrid. Deregulation would allow anyone to plant the hybrids anywhere without regulatory review.
“We would expect them to call for public comment and do an environmental impact statement,” which would give environmentalists more opportunities to intervene, he said.
“This has prepared us for that process,” Petermann added.
Biotech companies expect environmentalists to object when they seek to deregulate a product in order to commercialize it.
This lawsuit, however, troubled the whole biotech industry, said Nancy Hood, director of public affairs and sustainability for Arborgen, “because they were challenging scientific trials, not commercialization or commercial plantings.”
“It was really extreme,” she said. “It was like saying, ‘We aren’t interested in science.'”
While the battle in court was fought over differing interpretations of arcane federal regulations, the real battle is between two very different, but equally speculative, views of the future.
For the timber and forest industries, genetically engineered eucalyptus offers a way for timber-related companies and communities to survive and compete with Brazil and supply the pulp needed to meet demands for paper and the feedstock to produce biofuels to power America’s transportation system.
“Proceeding with the field trial research is critical to determine if these highly productive hardwood trees can become a new sustainable source of wood for pulp and paper, and for renewable energy — including biopower and biofuels — in the southeastern United States, where many communities depend on the timber and emerging renewable energy industries for their livelihoods,” said Tom Ryan, senior manager public relations, International Paper.
That assumes that biofuels will compete effectively with oil sands, natural gas and electricity to power the cars of the future.
For environmentalists, genetically engineered eucalyptus is a 21st century kudzu vine, an environmental disaster waiting to happen.
Petermann said that International Paper has said it wants to plant 42 million acres of eucalyptus forest in the southeastern U.S. Since eucalyptus trees take up twice as much water as do pine trees, that would reduce the water levels of nearby streams by 20 percent while layering the ground with highly flammable leaf litter and depriving native wildlife of food, she said.
If the engineered sterility isn’t 100 percent effective and eucalyptus trees spread into the wild and displace native species, it would be worse. Larger areas would become forested with trees that don’t support native wildlife, and that burn more readily than native species and siphon water out of streams, she said.
Either way, she said, it would be disastrous for the environment and for all the companies and communities that rely on hunting, fishing, bird-watching and other forms of nature tourism for their livelihoods.