FORT PIERCE, Florida - An alliance of conservation organizations is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture over its approval of open-air field tests of a genetically engineered hybrid of eucalyptus tree across the southern United States.
The permit, issued to a company called ArborGen, which is a joint initiative of International Paper, MeadWestvaco and Rubicon, was approved May 12 with what the plaintiffs claim is "minimal" environmental review.
It authorizes the experimental planting and flowering of a new, genetically engineered hybrid on 29 sites across seven southern states - Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.
"In refusing to prepare a detailed environmental review, the Department of Agriculture ignored serious risks before permitting this action," said Marc Fink, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiff groups.
"Federal agencies can't be allowed to neglect their duty to the public trust," said Fink. "Once this genie is out of the bottle and escapes to neighboring lands, it's irreversible."
Dr. Jeff Wright is ArborGen's senior scientist, eucalyptus sales and silvicultural systems. (Photo courtesy ArborGen)
The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service reached a finding of "no significant impact to the environment" after preparing an environmental assessment that included what the agency called "an in-depth scientific analysis of the confinement measures to manage potential plant pest risk and environmental impacts" of the field research studies.
The USDA said the decision will allow ArborGen to continue its research on the genetically engineered traits in the eucalyptus, including cold tolerance.
The organizations that filed the lawsuit on Thursday are the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Dogwood Alliance, International Center for Technology Assessment, Center for Food Safety and Global Justice Ecology Project.
ArborGen hopes its genetically engineered cold-tolerant eucalyptus will become widely planted for pulp and biomass. But the plaintiffs argue that eucalyptus trees are not native to the United States and are known to become invasive, displacing native wildlife and plants in various areas around the country and increasing wildfire risk.
"Releasing GE cold-tolerant eucalyptus trees into the wild in multiple states greatly increases the risk they will spread uncontrollably throughout the region," said Dr. Neil Carman of the Sierra Club.
In approving the genetically engineered eucalyptus permits, the plaintiffs say the U.S. Department of Agriculture ignored the concerns of numerous agencies and scientists, including the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, which formally criticized the proposed open field tests.
In addition to approving these test sites, the USDA is also considering a "deregulation" petition submitted by ArborGen that would allow widespread commercial planting of genetically engineered eucalyptus without any limits or regulation.
The plaintiffs point out that the transgenic trees are water hogs. They quote U.S. Forest Service advice that genetically engineered eucalyptus plantations in the southern United States would use more than twice the water of pine plantations in a region already suffering from a depleted water supply.
"These tests include planting over a quarter of a million genetically engineered eucalyptus trees along the Gulf Coast and into South Carolina," said Anne Petermann of Global Justice Ecology Project and the STOP GE Trees Campaign.
"Ultimately they plan to produce up to half a billion GE eucalyptus seedlings annually for planting across the U.S. South," said Petermann. "This would be another disaster for these beleaguered Gulf coast states, leading to a loss of native forests and biodiversity, depleting ground water and worsening climate change."
The Government Accountability Office and the USDA Office of the Inspector General have both issued reports that are critical of the USDA's management of genetically engineered field tests.
In 2006, a genetically engineered rice field test contaminated southern U.S. long-grain rice fields, causing billions in losses to farmers; in 2007, a federal court found that a genetically engineered bentgrass field test had contaminated a protected national grassland in Oregon.
"The Department of Agriculture continues to tell the public that no further restrictions are needed on these novel organisms," said George Kimbrell, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "In light of history, their empty promises here ring hollow."
"Over the last generation the people of the South have watched the forests of our region destroyed by industrial forestry, impacting our water quality, wildlife habitat and quality of life," said Scot Quaranda of Dogwood Alliance. "The federal government's decision to approve the use of GE eucalyptus trees in our region will open the door to further exploitation of the people and forests of the South. This decision must be overturned."