Regulators gave the go-ahead Wednesday for a field test of trees genetically engineered to withstand cold weather. The eucalyptus trees would become a new source for pulp and paper and for biofuels in the Southern timber belt. The field test will stretch across seven states from Florida to Texas.
USDA - in its environmental assessment of the technology developed by ArborGen - says no problems would be caused by the field trial. The trial will include more than 200,000 of the trees in 29 sites - and trees will be able to flower on 28 of those sites.
USDA's Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service found no significant impact to the environment after reviewing the environmental assessment that included an in-depth scientific analysis of the confinement measures to manage potential plant pest risk and environmental impacts of the field research to be conducted on sites in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.
The ag agency would have to rule later on commercial use of the trees, which ArborGen is already pursuing. This would be the first clearance of "forest" trees with biotech traits.
USDA received comments from those opposing the trial from more than 12,000 people or organizations, compared with only 45 supporters of the trial, according to the New York Times. But the opposing comments were primarily form letters, the agency said.
Critics claim the eucalyptus trees, even without the biotech traits, could become invasive and may also be a greater fire threat. USDA counters the biotech fears noting the eucalyptus tree is difficult to cultivate and would be unlikely to spread like a weed; and that the trial plots are small and isolated.