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Groups urge USDA not to approve genetically engineered eucalyptus trees

Groups urge USDA not to approve genetically engineered eucalyptus trees
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Groups are urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) not to green light the commercial growth of a genetically engineered (GE) eucalyptus trees.

The Global Justice Ecology Project and Campaign to Stop GE Trees are fighting ArborGen Inc.’s petition to grow eucalyptus trees that are genetically engineered to withstand freezing temperatures.

The U.S.-based forestry genetics company, which was acquired by Rubicon for $29 million late last month, petitioned the USDA back in 2011 for nonregulated status of its GE-free tolerant eucalyptus tree. If approved, the company would no longer have to obtain a permit or notification to grow the plant within the U.S. or ship it across the country.

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The company said a supply of high-quality and cost-effective hardwood is needed to sustain the pulp and paper industries and eucalyptus trees are among the fastest-growing trees.

Attempts have been made to grow a wide variety of eucalyptus species in several parts of the southeastern U.S., but the company said that in many cases these species have been unable to withstand the dramatic and sudden drops in temperature that are typical of the region.

The USDA said in a draft environmental impact statement released in April that it does not anticipate the trees posing any risk to human health and that the potential cumulative impacts from the cultivation of these trees “would either not differ or be slightly worse from those caused by the cultivation of planted or naturally-regenerated plantation pine.”

Public comments on the draft environmental impact statement were due on Wednesday.

Consumer groups claim the approval of these genetically engineered trees could set a precedent for future approval of modified forest trees such as poplar and pine and the likelihood of those trees spreading into native forests.

“GE eucalyptus plantations spread across the South would be a disaster,” Marti Crouch, a consulting scientist for the Center for Food Safety, said in a statement.

“Some non-GE eucalyptus species have already become invasive and are degrading natural areas. Plants and animals, including endangered species, will be unable to find suitable habitats within landscapes dominated by GE eucalyptus. Approving these trees is a terrible idea.”