Fast fat GM eucalyptus trees

December 2014
Photo of eucalyptus trees
Eucalyptus trees. CC Photo by Victor Camilo on Flickr
An application to plant transgenic eucalyptus trees in Brazil is underway. If successful, this will mean vast monocultures of GM trees spreading across the country. Eucalyptus is not a food, but its products and presence have huge impacts on humans.
Details about the artificial DNA construct in the trees are sparse, but the gene is based on one found in a tiny fast-growing weed. The novel enzyme generated by the gene seems to disrupt the cellulose (woody material) around plant cells and induce faster cell division and growth rate. As a result, the GM eucalyptus has a thicker trunk and is big enough to harvest in only five-and-a-half years, instead of the seven years needed for current commercial conventional varieties.
The primary purpose of all that extra eucalyptus wood is to produce paper, but other uses are being explored such as bioplastics and renewable fuels; one particular suggestion has been pellets for export to the UK to co-fire with coal in our power stations. 
Industry hype is that the 20 percent increase in productivity will mean less land under eucalyptus, leading to reduced chemical inputs and carbon releases, and more land available for food production or conservation: a win-win situation with enhanced competitiveness, and environmental and socio-economic gains.
However, GM trees pose much bigger problems than annual crops: they have a long-term, long-range environmental impact. Trees live for a long time, flowering and setting seed every year, and their pollen and seed are designed to disperse naturally over great distances.
Conventional breeding has already generated eucalyptus trees with hugely accelerated growth and 60 percent increased productivity, but seems to have reached its natural limit. They're not native to Brazil, are not integral to the natural ecosystem there, and are already well known for the environmental damage they cause: faster, fatter GM trees will extract even more water and nutrients from the environment, and leave an even worse biological devastation in their wake. Eucalyptus plantations are called 'green deserts' in Brazil because nothing can grow in them.
History has shown that increased productivity doesn't reduce the land area in use. If anything, the proposed expanded uses for Eucalyptus wood will stimulate further forest clearance, community displacement and conflict.
Turning trees into paper and fuel in under six years certainly isn't going to remove any carbon from the atmosphere.
The most immediate human impact will be on Brazil's 350,000 honey producers. A quarter of the country's honey comes from eucalyptus. Industry 'safety' tests showed that the gross composition of honey from a mere five hives at a single location was unchanged. Effects on propalis, pollen and royal jelly or the bees themselves, were not considered. Also, Brazil exports its honey: consumers of honey often don't want GM in their 'health' food.
After some eleven years of trials, the industry insists all its GM trees perform normally, and that it is not going to grow monster trees.
There's a question which no one's asking.
The man in the street in Europe is probably more familiar with Eucalyptus as a source of a very pungent oil which has a host of medicinal and veterinary applications.
Eucalyptus oil, being natural and plant-derived, isn't a single substance. there are over 500 species of the tree and each produces its own-brand oil in most parts of the plant (including the leaves, buds, fruit and bark) depending on its age. Over 40 active constituents have been identified.
Besides medicinal properties, some eucalyptus oils are known to have fungicidal, herbicidal and pesticidal properties, and some are toxic, some are weak mutagens, and some are carcinogens. These could have devastating consequences in the environment, or in human users.
*Note. Koala bears are one of the few animals which can eat eucalyptus without adverse consequences because their livers and intestinal microbes are able to detoxify the offending substances.
Put another way, Eucalyptus, as a plant group, has a huge potential to generate toxins. The question that's not being asked is what are the chances that GM trees could take a short biochemical step to producing novel toxins under, for example, environmental stress?
Once fast, fat trees have been established, the plan is for future monocultures with a whole variety of other commercially useful GM traits. Each one of these will carry the possibility of another novel toxin or two.
How far any such novel toxin could travel in seeds and pollen is any one's guess. Bees and the people using their products will be at risk, and Brazil could become the most toxic country on the planet.
Is Britain prepared to feed its power-stations with this kind of 'environmentally friendly' eucalyptus fuel no matter what the consequences?
It probably will, unless you suggest otherwise to the government before it happens.
  • Eucalyptus spp., Cornell University
  • John Vidal, The GM tree plantations bred to satisfy the world's energy needs, Guardian  15.11.14
  • Heidi Ledford, Brazil considers transgenic trees, Nature, Volume 512, 28.08.14
  • Transgenic eucalyptus yields 20% more than conventional, Embrapa / Labex Korea (Brazil-Asia Cooperaton in Agricultural Research, 21.03.13
  • FuturaGene submits genetically modified eucalyptus for commercial approval, Suzano Pulp and Paper, 15.05.14
  • Brazil evaluates release of transgenic eucalyptus, Greenpeace, 4.09.14
  • Will Brazil turn the country into a factory of genetically modified trees?, World Rainforest movement, 6.06.14

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