Bioengineered Eucalyptus to Replace Pine Trees?

As Steve’s Forestry Blog noted last summer:
ArborGen made a request to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to plant 260,000 flowering genetically engineered (GE) eucalyptus trees over 330 acres in seven states. USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is processing this request. Several plantations already exist in Florida and Alabama.

The tree is Eucalyptus grandis x urophylla. The plant is a cold-hardy eucalyptus that ArborGen is developing for future commercial purposes, mainly pulp for paper.

Paul Voosen writes in Scientific American that
Even given government incentives and a price on carbon, however, ArborGen must satisfy concerns from regulators and environmental groups that its engineered trees will not, especially when gifted with the ability to resist cold, spread untrammeled through forests.
It’s easy to see pollen from such trees blowing onto neighboring land and new trees growing. And, given the tactics of a certain other GM plant producer, it’s easy to see the patent owner sueing the adjacent landowner for patent theft, even though the patented plant trespassed. This is the level of assurance that that won’t happen:
“When you talk about trees, storms happen, wind blows,” he said. “The containment is not absolute. There is the chance of some spread. Is it likely to become an invasive weed? Seems unlikely to me.”
Not very reassuring. Meanwhile, the test stations continue to spread:
Until now, only two of ArborGen’s experimental eucalyptus stations have been allowed to flower, and the company has reported little in the way of pollen production in the trees. It is now seeking to greatly expand the number and location of trees allowed to flower to 28 sites totaling 330 acres scattered across seven states. The Agriculture Department issued a draft approval of the expansion, subject to public comment, earlier this month.
International Paper plans to deploy ArborGen’s trees, and, according Jack Kaskey writing in Bloomberg,
Plantations of engineered trees would give International Paper a competitive advantage by providing a reliable supply of lower cost wood at a time when timberlands are dwindling because of development, said David Liebetreu, the Memphis, Tennessee- based company’s vice president of global sourcing. Opponents are concerned that alien genes may contaminate natural forests, echoing objections to modified crops that Monsanto still faces.
Such trees produce other hazards:
Engineered eucalyptus trees could be an ecological disaster, bringing increased fire risk and extraordinary water consumption to a new environment, said Neil J. Carman, an Austin, Texas-based member of the Sierra Club’s genetic engineering committee. Easier-to-pulp trees will be weak, and hurricanes will spread their pollen and contaminate native forests, he said.

“These are Frankenforests,” Carman said. “You are tampering with Mother Nature in a big way by putting genetically engineered trees out there.”

The group won a court order in 2007 requiring Monsanto to pull modified alfalfa plants from the market while the USDA reviewed their environmental impact more thoroughly, and Carman said a similar strategy may be used against modified trees.

Such a strategy may be necessary soon. The likely deployment date is this year, and the resemblance to Monsanto isn’t coincidence:
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service may approve sales of freeze-tolerant eucalyptus trees by late 2010, ArborGen Chief Executive Officer Barbara Wells said. The company also is developing trees that are easier to pulp and that grow twice as fast, said Wells, a former Monsanto executive who has a doctorate in agronomy.
Parallels with Monsanto aren’t a coincidence. Wells, 54, 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.
Unless tree farmers want to lose their independence, they might want to stop deployment of these trees:
ArborGen may charge 20 times more for its engineered trees than its cheapest seedlings and two to three times more than its best conventional products as it claims a share of the revenue landowners gain from growing high-quality wood faster, according to Rubicon’s July update. Monsanto’s modified corn and soybean seeds are priced to grab as much as half the increased income farmers realize from higher yields and lower pest-control costs.
Wall Street likes all this, of course:
“If you could go back and buy Monsanto when it was just starting to develop genetically modified seeds, would you do it?” said Walker of Goldman Sachs JBWere. “I think so.”

Here’s Arborgen’s USDA permit application. Here’s the announcement for it. Here are comments received by USDA. USDA has reopened the comment period. Here’s a petition against these GM trees, which mentions yet another hazard,

The fatal fungal pathogen, Crytococcus Gattii has been found in the U.S. It can cause fatal fungal meningitis among people and animals that inhale its spores. One of the eucalyptus species used in the GE eucalyptus hybrids (E. grandis) is a known host for cryptococcus gattii. Creating extensive habitat for this fatal fungal pathogen is dangerous and foolhardy. These concerns were not adequately addressed in the EA.
Extensive and possibly self-spreading habitat. Eucalyptus were imported to California in the 19th century and have spread. The same problem has been observed in South Africa:
But in opening the door to the plant’s cultivation, far more scrutiny is needed as to how eucalyptus will behave when grown in bulk, said Doria Gordon, a senior ecologist at the Nature Conservancy.

“My concern is about invasiveness. Not that it is a GMO, per se,” Gordon said. “The concern is, what threat is it to Florida’s natural area and to the Southeast’s natural areas?”

Last year, Gordon, who also works at the University of Florida, evaluated one of the two species used to breed ArborGen’s hybrids, Eucalyptus grandis, also known as the rose gum. The tree had previously turned invasive in South Africa, Gordon found, which led her to conclude that the tree carried a risk of turning invasive in the South, as well.

No published scientific results on the purported genetic modification, evidence of disease that can be carried by the trees, a history of invasiveness by the underlying species, and extensive links to Monsanto. Doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.

Some people think biomass uses of native pine species could stop this:

Indeed, primarily because of competition from South America, demand for traditional American tree pulp has gone slack. This sagging industry could allow up to 10 million acres in the Southeast to be repurposed for fast-growing eucalyptuses, according to corporate estimates.

But it still remains unclear if the nascent bioenergy industry will be enough to make up for demand lost to Brazilian plantations, said Curtis Seltzer, a timber consultant who has studied ArborGen and calls its trees a “game changer.”

“It’s not clear to me that biomass will pick up the slack for the traditional markets [as they] ebb,” Seltzer said. “But it could.”

On the other hand, there’s nothing to prevent eucalyptus from being burned in biomass plants.