Paper Industry Eyes Genetically Engineered Eucalyptus to Conserve Forests

eucalyptus grove photo

Photo of eucalyptus via maveric2003 via Flickr CC

In the US, eucalyptus trees already have a big strike against them in that they're non-native and somewhat invasive. Brought here from Australia as drought-resistant wind-breaks for farms and fast-growing timber, the trees have popped up all over the place, but usually in the warmer states as they have a low tolerance for cold weather. But the paper industry is testing out eucalyptus trees engineered to withstand chilly temperatures. The industry thinks that this can help them grow more trees faster and in a smaller area, helping to conserve already existing forests. However, conservationists are worried about what impacts these new and "improved" trees could have on ecosystems, especially as they're introduced in more northern states. According to PhysOrg, biotech company ArborGen is signed on with three large paper companies to develop better-growing eucalyptus and, last month, they were approved by the US Department of Agriculture to plant as many as 250,000 of their newly engineered trees for field trials. The quarter-million trees will be planted at 29 different sites across Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana, getting tested for how well they can withstand cold weather.

Paper companies like eucalyptus because they grow fast and have a high-quality pulp for paper. But they're limited to growth in warm climates, which means a higher transportation footprint for the product.

ArborGen angle for their GM trees is that plantations of hearty eucalyptus could produce more timber in a smaller area, conserving space for natural forests. They've modified the trees to potentially be more resistant to cold, but they've also limited their ability to spread seeds, a stop-gap for their potential to be an invasive species. But critic point out that there isn't enough known about the impacts the trees could have on their surrounding ecosystems.

Neil J. Carman, a biologist who serves on the Sierra Club's genetic engineering committee, stated reservations about the project, and Anne Petermann, executive director of the activist group Global Justice Ecology Project, points out that eucalyptus require too much water and are a fire hazard because they're so flammable.

Additionally, at least one person has shown that the same results for better eucalyptus can come without tinkering with genes. Donald Rockwood, a professor emeritus in the University of Florida's School of Forest Resources and Conservation, uses traditional breeding techniques and has developed a eucalyptus that thrives in Florida, is relatively water efficient, and no more flammable than other hardwoods. While hired by ArborGen to write a report on the pros and cons of their trees, even he has expressed reservation, noting that the unintended consequences of introducing genetically modified plants to an area are simply not known.

Genetically modified plants for food production is a big debate. While some point out that adjusting genes in crop plants can help ensure a future food supply, such as with making plants more salt tolerant as our soils change composition, they've proven themselves to come with a lot of unwanted side effects, from popping up in neighboring crops where they cause problems in farmers' fields to programmed to lack the ability to reproduce, which is an economic, political and food safety hotspot. While these eucalyptus are not a food source, they pose the same questions about what unintended consequences they could hold in store for the flora and fauna coexisting with them.

Still, the company has the go-ahead for field testing. It's a matter of time to see if the trees are a genuine benefit to the paper industry or a more difficult burden on the environment.

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