USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has approved ArborGen permit applications for planting and growing genetically engineered (GE) eucalyptus trees in several Southern states. APHIS reached a finding of no significant impact to the environment after preparing an environmental assessment (EA) that addressed potential plant pest risk and other environmental impacts. As best as I can tell, we’re talking cumulatively about planting a couple hundred thousand GE trees on a little more than 300 acres.
This means the Stop GE Trees Campaign waged by environmental groups has come up short. Okay, you may not have heard of this campaign, given the state of the world in the past two years, and you may be asking yourself “why not plant some experimental GE trees?” After all, the wood bioenergy and fuels industry continues to gather momentum, and all we’ve been hearing lately is that this new generation industry may disrupt the traditional wood supply chain, possibly causing a shortage. So why not test the potential of GE trees?
Immediately upon the notice by the APHIS, I received a release from the Global Justice Ecology Project. (What? You haven’t heard of it either?) A spokesperson for it said the APHIS decision was “another case of the USDA ignoring public outcry, the precautionary principle, and hard science.” Public outcry? The current reaction to the massive oil spill in the Gulf waters (which as I write this still hasn’t been plugged up) is what I would refer to as “public outcry.”
The Global Justice Ecology Project says that the eucalyptus trees, even without foreign genes, may become invasive, are heavy users of water, can spread fires faster and can harbor a fungus that sickens people. “They’ve been a disaster everywhere they’ve been planted,” said another Global spokesperson.
A disaster? An ArborGen spokesperson meanwhile said these GE trees grow so fast, they would minimize the amount of forestland needed for commercial plantations. That is, “You are able to produce more wood off fewer acres of land.” (We wouldn’t want that to happen now would we?)
The Global Justice Ecology Project spokesperson said USDA disregarded concerns raised by thousands of people. And that the APHIS decision is not only bad for the U.S., but “could open the door globally to these cold-tolerant eucalyptus and other transgenic trees which would have serious impacts on indigenous and forest-dwelling peoples around the world and lead to more biodiversity loss.”
These are the same environmental groups who condoned less management of national forests in the Northwest, resulting in massive forest fires, blackened and bare landscapes, displaced wildlife, and the dismissal of “dwelling peoples” who made their livelihoods from the forests. But now we know. The next time you’re feeling a little under the weather, there may be a GE tree lurking.