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, according to Barbara Wells, CEO of the company.
It may also help revitalize the timber industry in the South, which has faced stiff competition from the paper and pulp industries in Brazil and other countries. Traditional pine plantations could be converted to eucalyptus, a tree that can be used for both pulp and, if the technology matures, production of cellulosic ethanol.
Last week the USDA gave ArborGen, a biotechnology company, the green light to plant genetically modified eucalyptus trees in the Southern timber belt as part of a field test. The company plans to plant some 260,000 trees, engineered to be cold tolerant, on 300 acres in seven states (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina).
The agency has already approved to virus-resistant fruit trees—papaya and plum—but eucalyptus is now the first forest tree to near commercial approval. ArborGen, which is owned by three big forest products companies—International Paper, MeadWestvaco, and Rubicon—is interested in the trees as a possible feedstock for biofuel.
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The USDA found that the field tests, which will allow the trees to flower (note: they’ve been engineered to produce no pollen), aren’t likely to pose a plant pest risk. “They are also unlikely to have a significant impact on the quality of the human environment. Based on its finding of no significant impact, APHIS has determined that an environmental impact statement does not need to be prepared for this field release,” the USDA found.
But critics are concerned that the trees might become invasive.
In February, the Sierra Club, one of several groups that have joined the STOP GE Trees campaign submitted a comment to the USDA: “ArborGen’s plans to grow 260,000 artificially developed, highly experimental, alien, genetically engineered cloned trees in extensive field trials raises many troubling ecological questions about the short-term and long-term environmental impacts and risks that these trees pose in the United States.”
ArborGen is currently seeking approval from the USDA to grow its GM eucalyptus trees commercially.