International Paper Growing Genetically Engineered “Frankenforests”

International Paper is seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sell the first genetically engineered forest trees outside China.

[social_buttons] I can’t believe what I read on Bloomberg.com, “International Paper’s ArborGen joint venture with MeadWestvaco Corp. and New Zealand’s Rubicon Ltd. is seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sell the first genetically engineered forest trees outside China.”  What?  International Paper?  It can’t be?  The world’s largest pulp and paper maker promotes itself as an environmentally responsible company, but now, it appears the company is following in the footsteps of Monsanto and genetically modified crops.

ArborGen’s eucalyptus trees are designed to survive freezes in the U.S. South.  These genetically engineered tree plantations would give International Paper (IP) a competitive advantage by providing a supply of lower cost wood.  ArborGen may boost yearly sales to $500 million in 2017 from $25 million by following Monsanto’s blueprint for commercializing engineered plants according to Bloomberg.com.

The similar strategies between Monsanto and ArborGen are not a coincidence.  ArborGen Chief Executive Officer Barbara Wells is a former Monsanto executive who spent 18 years at that company, including four years introducing modified soybeans in Brazil.  ArborGen Chief Science Officer Maud Hinchee and James Mann, vice president of business development, also worked at St. Louis-based Monsanto.

I can’t help feeling a little disappointed in IP.  I believed the paper maker was honestly concerned about the environmental impact of its business operations.  The company even published a series of brochures called the Down to Earth series to discuss environmental topics such as “Pixels vs Paper” and “Recycled vs. Virgin”.  And now…Frankenforests?  I always thought genetically modified anything was bad for us and the environment.  The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) recently reported a link between genetically modified (GM) foods and adverse health effects.  Yes, I know.  We don’t eat trees but playing around with Mother Nature seems like a bad idea to me.

So what are the risks?  “Engineered eucalyptus trees could be an ecological disaster, bringing increased fire risk and extraordinary water consumption to a new environment,” Neil J. Carman, an Austin, Texas-based member of the Sierra Club’s genetic engineering committee, told Bloomberg.com.  “Easier-to-pulp trees will be weak, and hurricanes will spread their pollen and contaminate native forests.”

While ArborGen awaits approval to sell cold-tolerant eucalyptus, it also is seeking USDA permission to expand a 57- acre test of the trees to 330 acres (approximately 260,000 experimental trees), mainly in Texas, Florida and Alabama.  If the field tests are approved, the Sierra Club may sue the USDA to compel a more thorough study, known as an environmental impact statement.

Why wasn’t an environmental impact study done before growing the genetically engineered trees?  And is IP as “green” as they would like us to believe?  What do you think?

Photo: Phospheros on Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

  1. MD

    There are already genetically modified trees in the USA, they are poplar trees, they are being engineered to be used for ethanol fuels…

  2. Cindy Tickle

    Thanks MD! So growing genetically modified trees is okay if they are being used for ethanol fuels? That is an interesting point. Issues are never as simple as they appear. Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about that.

  3. russ

    There have been probably zero trees planted for paper/timber that are the original wild version of the tree for the past 40 or 50 years. Even Christmas trees on plantations are very far from the wild version.

    @Cindy just because finally you wake up to something certainly does not mean that it is new or bad.

  4. Martin

    It is very bad. These monocultures are a desert where very few animals can live. Dear can not fit their antlers between pine and the eucalyptus destroys the soil, is highly flammable and leads to soil erosion ultimately threatening our food reserves. GM would take these threats to a whole new level and are the degneration of our society. We can instead all take a hectare of land and plant diverse food forests providing excellent food, water, habitat for animals and the ideal conditions for safe, free and sucessful families.

  5. Bobby B.

    @Cindy – It may be worth remembering that the environmental movement pushed to get ethanol to market, even though many greens now wish that they could deny it. Plus, Russ is right about genetic modification being a successful part of forestry for decades. With regards to an increased risk of fires, it seems that unmanaged (pristine) forests suffer this fate more often than managed forests. Treating trees like crops insures their survival.

  6. russ

    @Martin – Dear? I think you mean deer if you are referring to what I think you are. The deer antlers work different between pine or fir & eucalyptus? Who wants deer in a managed timber stand anyway?

    Destroys the soil – highly flammable? Please explain. Your whole post is off in never-never land!

    If you are interested in living in a cave, please do – I (and the majority of the population) have zero interest in the make believe world you seem to be describing.

  7. Chris

    This is why I love sustainablog. Thoughtfully brought up issues. Regarding the comments, I wonder about extreme posts like Martin who talk about threatening food reserves and degeneration of society. Without using slippery smoke “the sky is falling” arguments, this could be good if it occurs on well-managed timber properties.

  8. MD

    “Thanks MD! So growing genetically modified trees is okay if they are being used for ethanol fuels? That is an interesting point. Issues are never as simple as they appear. Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

    I’m not sure if it is okay, but look at it this way, millions of acres are laying fallow, the government pays farmers to leave them un-farmed, while that does reduce fuel and chemical use, it does nothing to sequester, so what I propose is grow fast growing trees on it.

    Perdue researchers are looking at hybrid poplars for ethanol, poplars grow like weeds and are already used in the paper industry for pulp.

    Poplar requires less bleeching ie less dioxins..

    Ethanol from poplars

  9. Martin

    @russ. Do you happen to work for International Paper by any chance? Picking on spelling is a classic tactic when you have no real argument. I unlike some am not paid to comment on such matters. As for the cave man comment how much lower will you sink next? I was talking about creating a space of love on a 1 hectare family domain so that we don’t need any more of these harmful products including paper from GM Frankenforest.

    If anyone is being extreme it is the technocrats forcing dangerous technologies on us that threaten Man and nature alike. Just let the prices go up and people will use less paper.

  10. Cindy Tickle

    Thanks everyone for your comments and thoughtful dialogue.

    @MD Thanks for the resources and links. I look forward to reading more about it. And I agree if we can use unused farmland in an eco-friendly, sustainable way to grow well managed forests, it may be a good thing. My hope is that IP has done the necessary research and will provide the necessary resources to ensure these forests have the least amount of negative impact on the environment.

    @Bobby B Absolutely! I know some environmentalists jumped the gun on the ethanol issue without looking at the social impact and real environmental impact. I have strong feelings about using corn for plastic as well.

    @russ I was aware that genetically engineered trees were used in forestry, but you’re correct. I didn’t know the extent.

    Bottom line for me is that IP and ArborGen are doing everything possible to be environmentally and socially responsible. I hope they have done or will do a Life Cycle Assessment and be transparent about their findings. It’s important to look at this from a whole systems perspective.

  11. Cindy Tickle

    @Martin your vision of creating a 1 hectare family domain sounds like heaven. Thank you for sharing.

    And unfortunately, excessive consumerism has put us in the position we are in. We should all try to use less.

  12. Steve Savage

    I’m not sure why you would think that genetically engineered plants were automatically “bad.” They have been grown now for 13 years on over 2 billion acres around the world and there have been no actual environmental problems or health issues. This technology was scrutinized by broad panels of scientists for years before it was commercialized. I know I participated in entire conferences on this issue. If you don’t really know anything about GMO perhaps you should not blog about it

  13. ben

    come on people get a grip! Do you think the rest of the world is going to sit on things like ethanol, supertrees, and food production. If we don’t compete on a glogal scale we will be the third world country, and at the pace tecnology is going it wont be years away, it is here now. Hey Russ get out into the woods. I have and the forest does not exist that antlers can’t get through on a dead run.

  14. Cindy Tickle

    @Steve with all due respect, a blog is about expressing an opinion on an issue and engaging in the dialogue. I am expressing my point of view from reading the concerns of the Sierra Club and Graeme P. Berlyn, professor at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies among others. And what about the American Academy of Environmental Medicine report on GM foods?

    In fact I do understand the GMO debate from the business perspective. I have 10+ years experience working for a Fortune 500 food & beverage company.

    As a fellow Sustainablog blogger, I appreciate you adding your expertise to the dialogue, but to question my right or desire to blog about the issue is unfair.

  15. Wilber

    People need to stop getting so upset when they hear Genetically modified. Guess what, we are all alive because science has stepped in. A lot of the drugs that are being created today are made possible through genetic engineering. Does any one oppose that?
    All of the food that you are eating has been genetically modified. If not by a lab then by years of selective breeding. None of the food we eat is how you would find it in the environment. The planet has by far exceeded its natural holding capacity for humans and the only reason that we are still alive is because of the green revolution that introduced science in agriculture in order to achieve a higher yield per acre.
    With the increase of the population we are not only exhausting our natural resources but also depleting our forests. Science needs to step in in order to insure that we maintain these forests that are extremely essential to the fabric of life. We need to do the same thing to our forests as we have done with medicine and agriculture. Trees that were created in order to for easier pulp extraction would greatly reduce the amount of chemicals need in order to create paper. Chemicals that end up in our streams and rivers. So I feel as though IP and ArborGen are actually doing our world a service rather then a disservice. People need to stop buying into the propaganda of GM, become educated and realize that we need to step in one way or another so save our environment.

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