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USA: USDA allows large-scale GM eucalyptus trial

(14 May 2010) On May 12, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave permission for a field trial of genetically modified (GM) eucalyptus trees on 28 sites. The trees withstand colder temperatures than conventional varieties and may be a new industrial source of wood. Commercial approval is pending.

On approximately 120 hectares across seven U.S. states from Florida to Texas, researchers will plant more than 200,000 GM eucalyptus trees. Developed by the ArborGen Company, the fast-growing trees are intended eventually to provide the raw materials for pulp, paper and bio-fuels and to minimise thereby the industrial use of forest land.

Field trials now should determine their suitability for the entire southern ‘timber belt’ of the USA: cold-sensitive, conventional eucalyptus varieties normally are confined to the state of Florida. However, the trials are controversial. Although site approvals had been issued previously, the new USDA permits allow flowering on all but one of the sites in question, as well as a greater density of trees.

Furthermore, while two GM fruit trees – papaya and plum – already are approved for commercial cultivation in the USA, the GM eucalyptus would be the first forest tree to have this status. Opponents to the trials have cited specific characteristics of forest trees, such as longevity and a broader pollen spread, as complicating factors in the case of unintended and unwanted environmental effects. Critics also voice concerns over the invasive nature of eucalyptus trees in general, in addition to their heavy water use, easy flammability and accommodation of a harmful fungus.

To date, the USDA has received over 12,000 comments against the field trials. While the U.S. environmental group known as the ‘Sierra Club’ has stated that "ArborGen’s plans ... raise many troubling ecological questions", the USDA released in May an environmental assessment in which no environmental problems are anticipated. The Department also referred to the isolation and small size of each experimental plot. Planted on no more than 20 hectares, the GM eucalyptus also is unlikely to spread because of its dependence on human assistance.


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