Miami, Florida, USA, 26 October 2011 -- On 07 October 2011, the 11th Circuit U.S. District Court for Southern Florida ruled that the planting of more than a quarter of a million genetically engineered (GE) non-native eucalyptus trees can proceed in test plots across seven southern states.
The ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which approved the test plots. The suit to stop the GE tree test plots from moving forward was filed 01 July 2010 by six organizations: Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, The Dogwood Alliance, Global Justice Ecology Project, the International Center for Technology Assessment and Sierra Club.
Although the 07 October court ruling approved the test plots, it left the door open for future challenges to the large-scale commercial planting of these trees.
“We are not at all discouraged,” said Neil Carman of the Sierra Club. “Although it denied our claims, the court noted that the agency and industry will have to address the potential harmful impacts of GE eucalyptus trees in any proposed commercial approval. We will remain vigilant and fully involved in this process to ensure these issues are addressed and prevented.”
The ruling favors ArborGen, the corporation that designed the GE trees and hopes to sell half a billion per year for planting in the U.S. South. The court’s decision was made despite serious concerns raised, not only by environmental groups, but by government agencies including the Florida Exotic Plant Pest Council, the Georgia Department of Wildlife, and the U.S. Forest Service. These concerns include documented impacts of eucalyptus trees, such as water depletion, displacement of wildlife, invasiveness, and firestorms. These concerns are magnified because these GE eucalyptus trees have been engineered to tolerate cold so they can grow and spread outside of their natural geographic boundaries.
Because of these serious concerns, during the USDA comment period on the test plots, nearly 20,000 people demanded the GE eucalyptus trees be rejected.
Anne Petermann, executive director of Global Justice Ecology Project, which has offices in Vermont and Oakland, California, said, “ArborGen’s GE eucalyptus trees are an ecological nightmare. Eucalyptus are so invasive, they’ve been likened to kudzu, the non-native vine that has devoured large areas of land in the U.S. South. But eucalyptus are worse — they are flammable kudzu. Growing them in plantations across millions of acres of the U.S. South, which ArborGen’s parent companies International Paper and MeadWestvaco hope to do, could lead to horrific wildfires. Texas is one of the states targeted for these plantations – the last thing it needs is more wildfires.”
The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division also echoed the wildfire concern, “The leaves of eucalyptus trees produce large amounts of volatile oils [allowing] accumulation of highly combustible fuels. Consequently, dense eucalyptus plantations are subject to catastrophic firestorms. Once ignited, these fires would grow vigorously, potentially spreading to other properties.” Georgia is one of the states currently experiencing exceptional drought.
This month marks the 20-year anniversary of the devastating Oakland, California, firestorms, which burned 1520 acres and destroyed more than 3800 dwellings, causing economic loss estimated at USD 1.5 billion. The presence of eucalyptus trees contributed greatly to this catastrophic firestorm.
The U.S. Forest Service submitted comments to the USDA noting that GE eucalyptus will require twice as much water as other forests in the South, “whether it is planted or invades native forests.” Stream flow, the Forest Service added, “would be about 20% lower in eucalyptus plantations than pine plantations.” Several states where eucalyptus test plots have been approved are already in an exceptional drought.
“Eucalyptus plantations will be extremely inhospitable environments for native flora and fauna,” The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division noted. "We have serious concerns about potential impacts on hydrology, soil chemistry, native biodiversity, and ecosystem functions.”
The Florida Exotic Plant Pest Council also recommended rejecting ArborGen’s request for GE eucalyptus test plots based on their potential for invasiveness. “Invasive plants negatively affect our native species…” E. grandis, one of the parent species of this GE hybrid, is a known invasive in Florida, South Africa, New Zealand, and Ecuador. The Florida agency further warned that the cold tolerance trait of the GE eucalyptus increases the threat of invasiveness. “If sterility of the [GE eucalyptus] is not permanent and 100% … the [GE eucalyptus] itself may acquire the ability to become invasive across the southeastern U.S.”
“It’s a sad state of affairs that the courts ignored the communities, organizations and landowners of the South who have serious concerns about the impacts of these trees and want to see them stopped,” said Scot Quaranda, campaign director at Dogwood Alliance, a plaintiff in the case. “The decision opens the door for ArborGen’s Frankentrees to release seeds into the wild. Neighboring landowners are not even aware of the threat, since there’s no requirement that the company disclose the locations of the GE eucalyptus trees. This is an outrageous failure of oversight.”