Eucalyptus Trees in the Morro Bay State Park Marina parking lot, CA. flickr/Mike Baird

A genetically engineered (GE) eucalyptus tree with frost-resistant capabilities is getting closer and closer to becoming the first GE forest tree to be deregulated in the U.S. ArborGen Inc., the company behind the GE tree, has touted that the tree will allow for larger eucalyptus plantations, reducing the stress of deforesting from other areas, and has claimed that the tree poses “no unique risks.” But over 280,000 people and 500 organizations think otherwise. During a public comment period on the project, over a quarter of a million conservationists and concerned citizens brought up a number of issues with the GE tree, including water usage, risk of wildfire, and the fact that eucalyptus trees are not native to the U.S. and could evolve into an increasingly harmful invasive species.

“This is the first forest tree species that has been considered for deregulation, and it would be in many ways precedent setting for the regulatory agency,” explained Dr. Rachel Smolker, co-director of Biofuelwatch and steering committee member of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees. “We can learn from history: genetically engineered food crops have done all sorts of collateral damage… over and over and over again they’ve escaped from their containment and spread into the environment, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that a GE tree wouldn’t do the same thing that virtually every other crop has done.”

The heart of the issue: water and fire

After a lengthy review process (ArborGen first started working with the USDA on the GE tree in 2005) the USDA released an equally lengthy assessment of the tree; the gist of the 500 page draft Environmental Impact Statement (dEIS), which was released in April of this year, is that the USDA believes that the tree will not negatively impact “crop or urban land uses within the action area,” and therefore recommends that it be deregulated. If deregulated, the tree can be transported, sold, and planted across the U.S. with little limitation; ArborGen believes that GE eucalyptus plantations could be planted across millions of acres. The eucalyptus trees, which are native to Australia, are engineered for cold tolerance with the intent of extending their range into the Southern US, from South Carolina to Texas.

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Not surprisingly, conservationists took issue with the USDA’s assessment, arguing that the dEIS was downplaying critical risks.

“Fire and drying, those are the severe impacts that I would bring up right off,” explained Dr. Smolker. “[eucalyptus trees] drain on water sources and generally dry up the surrounding region, which is a great concern especially in the southern states where there’s already severe droughts that have been periodic, and will likely get worse with climate change.”

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When asked about these potential hazards, an ArborGen representative explained in an email that “the idea that eucalyptus is more volatile or prone to fire than other tree species is inaccurate.” The representative then went on to explain that there haven’t been any problems with dryness in Brazil, which has vast eucalyptus plantations and approved a GE eucalyptus tree a few years ago.

Dr. Smolker was quick to point out the flaws with these statements: “Not only are eucalyptus trees flammable, they emit volatile compounds that can be explosive under the right fire conditions,” said Smolker. “The recent fires that we’ve seen in Portugal were associated with eucalyptus plantations, and some months ago there were fires in Chile, again those were associated with plantations, including eucalyptus plantations.

And as far as Brazil is concerned, the conversation about eucalyptus trees is far from simple; an Al Jazeera article explains how a pulp and paper industry leader was behind a land war in the northern part of the Espirito Santo region, which deprived many native people of their territory. This same region has experienced water shortages this past year, with 130 streams drying up, largely because of eucalyptus monocultures, which are colloquially known as “green desserts”.

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Eucalyptus logs await shipment at a plantation in Brazil. (Photo: Steve Strauss/flickr Oregon State University )

Threats of invasion

Another concern that has consistently come up with the GE tree is that since eucalyptus trees are nonnative, the spread of these trees across the U.S. means that they could strangle local ecosystems. ArborGen points out that there isn’t a high risk of this happening, as “eucalyptus species have been planted and successfully managed in Florida for several decades with no history of invasiveness.” The USDA, in their dEIS, seem to largely agree with this statement.

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Still, there is some reason for concern, as eucalyptus trees have spread beyond their desired enclosures and disrupted native habitats in the past. California and South Africa are just two of the more well-known regions of the world where eucalyptus trees were introduced and are now viewed as invasive species. The discussion of what to do about these trees is long and convoluted, but the short of is that eucalyptus trees have been known to take over suitable habitats in the past, and arming them with frost-resistance so they can survive in diverse environments seems to carry potential danger.

“GE eucalyptus plantations spread across the South would be a disaster,” asserted Marti Crouch, consulting scientist for the Center for Food Safety, in an interview with Global Justice Ecology Project. “Some non-GE eucalyptus species have already become invasive and are degrading natural areas. Plants and animals, including endangered species, will be unable to find suitable habitats within landscapes dominated by GE eucalyptus. Approving these trees is a terrible idea.”

Dirty renewable energy

Conservationists are also worried about one of the largest end uses for eucalyptus trees: wood pellets to fuel the growing demand for “clean” bioenergy. Under Trump, the U.S. has taken a back seat when it comes to renewable energy, but the E.U. has gone full steam ahead, and one of the ways it’s seeking to cut fossil fuel consumption is by increasing the use of wood as a biofuel. American companies have been capitalizing on this trend, by sending millions of trees to the E.U. in the form of wood pellets. The problem with this scheme is that burning wood isn’t a good way to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

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“Burning wood releases into the atmosphere anywhere from 100-150% more CO2 per unit of energy than burning coal, and that might come as a shock, but it’s very inefficient to burn wood,” explained Dr. Smolker. And it isn’t just burning the wood that’s a problem: using wood as a biofuel means cutting down forests, which are one of nature’s most efficient carbon sequesters. “So we’re cutting down forests in the Eastern U.S., reducing them into pellets, shipping them across the Atlantic, burning them in coal plants, and subsidizing the coal companies for making renewable energy,” said Dr. Smolker. “This is the context in which this eucalyptus would be introduced: a huge new market for wood pellets.”

Pellets falling onto a conveyor at the Malheur Lumber Mill in John Day, Ore. flickr/Oregon Department of Forestry

So what happens now?

The public comment period for the USDA’s dEIS has ended, with over 280,000 comments posted; it was almost a unanimous cry against the GE tree, with seemingly just a handful of comments in favor of the project. The USDA now has the pleasant task of going over the 280,000 or so comments to see if any substantial new information was filed. If they find such information, then they’ll return to the drawing board to produce another 500 page dEIS with a new, updated recommendation for what to do about the GE tree. If no new information is found, ArborGen will likely get its way, and the GE tree will be deregulated.

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When asked about the mass opposition to their project, an ArborGen representative explained that “the process of evaluation by the USDA is and should be based on scientific fact… it is hard for us to imagine that most, if any, of the people signing comments have a complete understanding of the environmental analysis that USDA performed.”

ArborGen is probably right, considering that the dEIS is 500 pages of confusing risk assessment and recommendations. Still, there are real reasons why conservationists and the general public are concerned about the GE tree; water, fire, and escapement are concerns that deserve attention.

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“The bottom line is that the genetics of an organism are a product of a long elaborate history that’s embedded in an ecosystem, over time and through interactions with many other species, and that is a part of the history of life,” explained Dr. Smolker:

Think of it like a tapestry: you start pulling threads of the tapestry, and arranging them according to what you — one little person who happens to exist right now in time, and who also happens to have a commercial interest in manipulating something ... with frankly with very little understanding of the broader context of history and ecology.