ArborGen cleared to field test genetically engineered eucalyptus in US south
Eucalyptus trees with a foreign gene that helps them withstand cold weather could become a new source of wood for pulp, paper, and biofuels in the Southern timber belt, said a report in the New York Times.
A federal permit would be issued to ArborGen, a biotechnology company owned by three big forest products companies: International Paper and MeadWestvaco of the United States, and Rubicon of New Zealand, to field test its genetically engineered eucalyptus trees in seven states in the southern US. Eucalyptus generally cannot now be grown north of Florida because of occasional freezing spells.
The Agriculture Department, in an environmental assessment, said no environmental problems would be caused by the field trial, which could involve more than 200,000 genetically modified eucalyptus trees on 28 sites covering about 300 acres. The Agriculture Department would have to grant separate approval for the trees to be grown commercially, clearance that ArborGen is already seeking.
Although two genetically engineered fruit trees are already approved for commercial planting in the United States, no forest trees have yet received that clearance in this country.
The Agriculture Department said Wednesday that it had received comments opposing the field trial from 12,462 people or organizations, compared with only 45 supporters of the trial. But a vast majority of the opposing comments were nearly identical form letters, it said.
Critics, including a coalition called the Stop GE Trees Campaign and The Sierra Club, say that the eucalyptus trees, even without foreign genes, may become invasive. They also said the trees were heavy users of water, could spread fires faster and could harbor a fungus that sickens people.
The Agriculture Department said it had found those possibilities to be unlikely.
ArborGen says that because they grow so fast, eucalyptus trees would minimize the amount of forest land needed for commercial plantations.