USDA Refuses to Regulate or Assess GE Tree
January 26, 2015 (Washington, DC)—A genetically engineered (GE) tree may already be planted in field tests, and eventually be commercialized, in the U.S. without having gone through any regulatory oversight or environmental risk assessment. On January 13th, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) quietly posted its August reply to a letter from ArborGen, a biotechnology company that is developing GE forest trees for plantations, confirming that USDA will require no regulation of ArborGen’s GE loblolly pine.
This failure to regulate a GE tree is unprecedented. Other known GE forest trees in the U.S. are being grown in USDA-regulated field trials, and none has been approved for commercial planting. USDA regulation is important because it ensures that risk assessments are carried out to determine whether or not the GE tree will harm the environment before a decision on its commercialization.
Loblolly pine is an important native tree, common throughout the diverse forests of the Southeast. These pine forests are a key habitat for more than 20 songbirds and many other animals, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Loblolly pine is also the leading commercial timber species in the Southeast, where forests and plantations supply both lumber and pulp for paper and energy.
The ArborGen GE loblolly pine contains novel genes that are currently undisclosed. Seeds and pollen of GE loblolly pine travel over a distance of many miles, and will disperse the novel genes well beyond any ArborGen GE field test site or plantation into natural forests where GE trees could potentially survive and spread.
“Forests are complex ecosystems, and GE trees could be very disruptive,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety. “Instead of protecting our precious natural forests, USDA is allowing ArborGen to make a complete end-run around the regulatory system with this GE pine.”
ArborGen’s GE loblolly pine is engineered to have more dense wood, though little else can be determined from the company’s letter to USDA. According to Dr. Martha Crouch, a biologist working with Center for Food Safety, wood density can impact how quickly decomposition occurs, changing nutrient cycles. Wood density also influences insects and fungi that are important for birds and other forest creatures. And genetic engineering can cause unintended changes, such as altering the nutrients in seeds upon which so many animals depend.
“Even seemingly small changes in characteristics of a key forest tree can have cascading impacts.
These impacts need to be studied and weighed, with ample public input, before allowing a private company to profit from a GE tree that could harm our forests,” said Dr. Crouch.
USDA’s failure to regulate ArborGen’s GE pine is based on an overly narrow interpretation of its authority under federal law. USDA normally requires regulation of GE plants only if “plant pests” – certain bacteria and viruses – were used in the development process. Yet the Department has ample authority to expand its scope of regulation, and should do so because most risks posed by GE plants have nothing to do with whether or not plant pests were used to develop them.
“Genetic engineers no longer always need to use techniques based on viruses and bacteria that infect plants, so they can potentially bypass regulation altogether. Unfortunately, the hazards cannot be so easily bypassed. USDA's refusal to regulate puts the environment at risk,” said Dr. Crouch.
“We are outraged at USDA’s complete abandonment of regulatory authority,” said Kimbrell. “This GE tree has the potential to contaminate natural forests and impact whole ecosystems. We are exploring legal options to stop the dissemination of ArborGen’s unregulated GE loblolly pine, and to see that it and future GE trees are subject to the serious regulation and transparent risk assessment the public deserves.”