Could genetically altered trees be on the horizon? According to the Associated Press, the Southern paper industry is planning the country’s first ever large-scale planting of “designer” trees. The Australian eucalyptus trees, which usually only grow in very warm climates, have been genetically altered to survive freezing temperatures, according to the AP story.
Three large paper companies started a biotech firm, ArborGen, in South Carolina and plan to plant 250,000 of the trees across 300 acres in Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana. No one has ever done anything like this, even while genetically engineered crops such as corn and soybean have become common, according to the AP.
There is a catch though.
…(C)ritics say that despite the USDA’s assurance that the trees pose no environmental threat, not enough is known about their effect on natural surroundings.
“We have many reservations about it,” said Neil J. Carman, a biologist who serves on the Sierra Club’s genetic engineering committee. “We don’t think the scientific evidence is in yet that says this is a good idea.”
Anne Petermann, executive director of the activist group Global Justice Ecology Project, said eucalyptus trees are invasive, require vast amounts of water that could reduce groundwater levels, and increase the wildfire risk because they are so flammable.
“This is quite a dangerous tree to be mass planting,” Petermann said.
ArborGen, meanwhile, says that eucalyptus trees are common in tropical countries, as well as Florida, and have never been invasive there. These designer trees would also be altered to limit their ability to disperse seeds, and would be planted on only 300 acres, a small area in the tree-planting business.
The idea of an essentially new species of tree being introduced into the environment is certainly compelling, and reads almost like a sci-fi movie, albeit with a forestry bent. Is it possible this could be applicable to the timber industry? It’s worth at least imagining trees that are impervious to disease, pine beetles and harsh weather, as long as the environmental impacts could be figured out.