Demand for wood is growing fast, partially in response to the expanding use of wood as a substitute for fossil fuels and petroleum based products. Burning wood for electricity, wood-based liquid transportation fuels, biochemicals, bioplastics, bioproducts, are all part of an envisioned “bioeconomy”. These new demands are on top of expanding demand for pulp and timber and expanding demand for agricultural products (a leading cause of deforestation) and the massive toll on forests from illegal logging.
Tree biotechnology companies like Arborgen claim that they will meet these growing demands by engineering trees to “grow more wood on less land”. They recognize growing demand for biomass as a key driver, stating for example: “Forest plantation yields can be 8-15 green tons/acre/year on rotations of 5-12 years. Utilization of this renewable and sustainable biomass resource will be as feedstock “designed” for a large number of bio-energy applications.” 
GE trees are not “renewable and sustainable” and they are not a “solution” They are meant to be grown in fast rotation industrial plantations, which have many very serious negative impacts on biodiversity, soils, waterways and human rights, as a result of land grabs. It is imperative that we reduce demand for wood and wood products rather than pretend GE trees can fulfill ever-expanding demand.
Arborgen, a US based tree biotechnology company is currently testing genetically engineered eucalyptus in plots across 7 southern USA states. Those trees are engineered to be cold tolerant, with the aim of greatly expanding the range where eucalyptus plantations can be grown. Arborgen has petitioned the USDA for permission to release these engineered eucalyptus commercially. The USDA is conducting an environmental impact assessment, due to be publicly available in 2014. Given their track record for permitting genetically modified crops, it seems likely USDA will in fact deregulate Arborgens trees. That will open the door to large scale GE eucalyptus plantations in the US. Activists, including the international Campaign to Stop GE Trees (LINK), have been mobilizing resistance, and are poised to take further steps.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, Futuragene, a spinoff from Brazilian pulp giant Suzano, has applied for commercial deregulation of another GE eucalyptus. The Brazilian National Technical Biosafety Commission (CTNBio) held a public hearing on the issue and is expected to decide on the permitting shortly. The MST and La Via Campesina delivered two letters on behalf of social movements and organizations around the world expressing opposition. Brazil already features nearly 3.5 million hectares of eucalyptus plantations. Across Latin America, the impacts of plantations – from displacement of communities to destruction of land and waterways – has been documented and met with increasing resistance.
Poplar species are the subject of much tree biotechnology research by Arborgen and various academic institutions. Because poplars are ubiquitous with many endemic species in the northern hemisphere, contamination of wild species is especially concerning. For example, in the Pacific Northwest region of the USA, a regional “Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest” initiative has been established, and over 136 million dollars in support was provided to a consortium of academic and commercial institutions including research on genetically engineered and hybrid poplars for jet fuel and chemicals.
In Florida, researchers are working to engineer loblolly pine to increase production of terpene which can be converted to fuels.
A number of genetically engineered fruit trees have been developed and in some cases already released commercially. The “arctic apple”, engineered to prevent the flesh from turning brown on exposure to air – hence having a longer shelf life as prepared food – is currently pending deregulation.
Research is also underway to develop American Chestnut trees that are resistant to the blight that largely obliterated the species from its former range in North America. Under the guise of “restoring endangered species”, tree biotechnologists hope to win over public acceptance of GE trees.
Among the traits that are being engineered: Fast growth is one of the most desireable as the main objective is to increase productivity. Tree biotechnologists claim that fast growth is beneficial not only because it produces more wood, more quickly, but also because it “sequesters more carbon”, (even though the trees are destined to be cut and also require applications of herbicides and fertilizers which results in emissions of the potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.)
Modification of lignin is another key trait of interest to tree biotechnologists. Lignin is responsible for the rigidity and strength of wood, lending structural integrity and enabling trees and wood plants to grow upright. It is however an obstacle to the conversion of wood to liquid transportation fuels as it interferes with accessing sugars bound up in cellulose. Even as tree biotechnologists are working to develop means to overcome the “lignin barrier”, simultaneously, research in synthetic biology is focused on developing microbes capable of producing enzymes that can digest and convert wood into fuels and chemicals.
Engineering sterility is another focus, as this is meant to ensure they cannot cross contaminate with wild relatives. This is highly contentious as there is a history of opposition to “terminator” technologies which have previously been deployed to ensure that farmers could not use seeds from crops engineered by Monsanto, Syngenta for future planting but would rather be required to purchase new seed for each subsequent crop.
Tolerance to various forms of stressors, including diseases, cold, pests, drought, salinity etc. are also a focus of tree biotechnology research, as is modification of metabolic pathways that would make trees secrete particular compounds that can be used to produce fuels and chemicals in greater abundance.
What are the risks?
There are many reasons to oppose genetically engineered trees. GE trees are intended to be grown in industrial monocultures. Hence, some of the risks – including loss of biodiversity, depletion of waterways and soils, displacement of people by land grabbing – are common to any type of tree plantation. GE trees introduce new additional risks as well. Those risks simply cannot be “assessed” or regulated given the complexity of tree lifecycles and ecosystems which are poorly understood. For example: trees are very long-lived. The expression of genes and their associated traits is thus subject to alteration over the lifespan of the tree in various and unpredictable ways. Because trees are a cornerstone of many ecosystems, providing food and habitat for a wide range of organisms, from microbes and fungi to birds and mammals, the impacts may be far-reaching, but are much more difficult to assess even than for food crops that we have some (not particularly good) experience with. Also, trees reproduce by spreading seeds and pollen over very very large areas and thus their is high risk of cross contamination with native relatives. Once that occurs, it cannot be reversed.
For more information on GE trees and how you can get involved in preventing them from being planted:
Resources and factsheets: