Genetically modified (GMO) trees may soon be coming to a backyard near you – without any government oversight or environmental risk assessment.
Last month the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) published its reply to an August letter from ArborGen about GE trees the biotech company is developing for plantations. Significantly, the USDA said it will not require any oversight or regulation of the trees, which are loblolly pines common throughout the Southeast, the Center for Food Safety reported.
It is unprecedented for the federal government not to supply oversight to a genetically modified tree, the organization said. In fact, other GMO or GE trees are actually grown in USDA regulated field tests – and “none has been approved for commercial planting.”
But the government apparently has given ArborGen the OK not only to test the loblolly pines on its own but to grow them commercially. This means that the GMO wood could end up in your home in the form of either lumber or paper.
“Forests are complex ecosystems, and GE trees could be very disruptive,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety. “Instead of protecting our precious natural forests, USDA is allowing ArborGen to make a complete end-run around the regulatory system with this GE pine.”
The same problem seen with GMO crops could occur with GMO trees: Seeds and pollen of loblolly pines travelling over long distances, contaminating non-GMO trees and forests.
More than 20 varieties of birds and a copious amount of other native species make their habitats in and around the loblolly pine tree. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker is among the birds that call the pine trees home. The loblolly pine is the leading commercial timber species in the southeast.
It isn’t fully known the purpose of having a genetically modified pine tree, although it is being engineered to have more dense wood.
Martha Crouch, a biologist working with the Center for Food Safety, warned against usage of the GMO tree, saying that “even seemingly small changes in characteristics of a key forest tree can have cascading impacts.”
The USDA claims that regulation isn’t required because “plant pests” – certain bacteria and viruses – are not used in the tree’s development.
“We are outraged at USDA’s complete abandonment of regulatory authority,” said Kimbrell. “This GE tree has the potential to contaminate natural forests and impact whole ecosystems. We are exploring legal options to stop the dissemination of ArborGen’s unregulated GE loblolly pine, and to see that it and future GE trees are subject to the serious regulation and transparent risk assessment the public deserves.”
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