Groups oppose genetically engineered eucalyptus trees
Environmentalists are challenging the plans of a S.C.-based biotechnology firm to grow genetically engineered eucalyptus trees in the South, saying the fast-growing Australian species could spread uncontrollably.
ArborGen LLC won federal permits in May to plant 330 acres of a eucalyptus hybrid in South Carolina and six other states. The test sites include Marlboro County, S.C., about 75 miles southeast of Charlotte.
Genetic engineering speeds up the tedious cross-breeding that farmers have used for centuries to boost desirable traits in crops and livestock.
Summerville, S.C.-based ArborGen, a partnership of the International Paper, MeadWestvaco and Rubicon Limited paper and forest products companies, hopes its tinkering will produce a warm-weather tree that can tolerate cold but won't reproduce.
The company is seeking federal approval to grow eucalyptus commercially to make paper and fuel biomass power plants. It would be the nation's first genetically engineered forest tree, ArborGen says.
Duke University ecologist Norm Christensen said most plant genetic experiments have involved annual crops such as corn and rice, not trees that live for decades. Modifying a non-native tree to make it better able to survive could also create the potential to overtake native plants, he said.
"When you begin doing this for things that live a long time, you're making a bet that what matters today is going to matter when that tree is 20 years old, and that bet might be wrong," Christensen said. "We have a lot to learn here."
Eucalyptus grows big enough to cut in 7 to 10 years, about twice as fast as the loblolly pine planted widely across the Southeast, and can regrow and be cut again. A hardwood, it releases more energy when burned than pine.
ArborGen spokeswoman Nancy Hood says the company envisions eucalyptus as a "fairly small" part of the region's large timber production, which relies heavily on pine. Companies who need the wood for a particular product could drive growth, she said.
Advocacy groups envision a darker side - eucalyptus escaping the test fields and spreading through native forests like kudzu. Six groups have sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop the tests, saying it didn't fully evaluate the plan.
Eucalyptus is grown commercially in Florida, as an energy crop and for mulch, and in South America.
A USDA environmental analysis concluded the tests are unlikely to create a pest plant. Critics say allowing the trees to flower in 27 test plots increases the risks that viable seeds or pollen will form and get away.
"Should this be accepted, it opens the door and makes it easier for a lot of genetically engineered (tree) species to come into play," said Scot Quaranda of the Dogwood Alliance, a forest-advocacy group in Asheville. "It's opening Pandora's box. We don't always know what will happen."
The federal General Accounting Office cites six examples in which genetically engineered corn and rice inadvertently got into the food supply, and dozens of incidents in which engineered strains might have been released to the environment.
ArborGen counters that its eucalyptus is a hybrid that can't easily reproduce. The company also engineered a pollen-control trait that it says makes the plant sterile.
Critics wrongly assume that the tree's cold hardiness is a bad thing, Hood said.
"It's not a gene that doesn't exist in nature," she said. "They're assuming that because it's been utilized to make it perform better, that it's automatically unnatural. Our position is that it's extremely natural."
The USDA analysis cited other concerns, including the trees' high flammability because of their oil-covered leaves. Eucalyptus also soaks up a lot of water. The U.S. Forest Service has warned that large-scale plantations could lower water tables.