Monday, May 17, 2010

USDA approves first genetically modified forest project, with hopes for future biofuel production

The first field test of genetically modified forest trees has been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Nearly 260,000 eucalyptus trees, engineered to be cold-tolerant, will be planted and allowed to flower in field trials by a South Carolina-based company, ArborGen," Gayathri Vaidyanathan of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "The plantings will occupy more than 300 acres in seven states. Earlier trials had allowed planting of the trees without flowering." ArborGen says "Future genetic modifications, including reduction of a tree-bark compound called lignin, should make the trees a good feedstock option for second-generation cellulosic ethanol production," Vaidyanathan writes.

Eucalyptus can be used for both pulp and production of cellulosic ethanol if the technology improves, so some view the tree as the key to revitalizing the Southern timber industry. "This is about opportunities to produce a biomass crop that can revitalize rural communities in the southeastern U.S.," Barbara Wells, CEO of ArborGen, told E&E. USDA says the trees will have minimal environmental impact if released in a controlled and regulated manner, but several environmental groups have still objected to the plan.

"They are different than annual crops," Anne Patermann, executive director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, told E&E. "They are perennial tree species. Contamination threats are much more serious." Environmental groups fear cross-pollination of the eucalyptus trees could overtake native species. Pattermann said the results of USDA's report are skewed because the agency relies heavily on industry-funded tests. (Read more, subscription required)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What tree species are the Eucalyptus in danger of cross-pollenating? I am unaware of any native Eucalyptus in the United States. Also, since ArborGen is genetically modifying their trees, are they not genetically introducing sterility as with many of the annual crops?

Frankly, I do not see the concern that all of the environmentalists are touting.