Even when GM trees are not regulated, there are stewardship principles in place that promote the long-term, responsible use of them.
ArborGen sent this letter to USDA asking if their Loblolly Pine would be regulated. USDA responded with this letter to ArborGen stating it does not have regulatory authority over the tree based on the genetic construct and process used to develop it.
However, the USDA recommended that the Responsible Use Principles be followed.
The Responsible Use: Biotech Tree Principles were developed to help protect forests wherever biotech trees are used. These Principles are the first of their kind and were developed through a transparent, multi-stakeholder mechanism, to achieve the following objectives:
- Establish a high level of performance for managing biotech trees that is recognized around the world.
- Create a simple and effective set of practices so users along the biotech tree value chain know how to use the trees responsibly.
- Increase societal benefits when biotech trees are used by promoting interaction and education between foresters, biotechnologists, and other stakeholders.
Embodied throughout is an understanding that biotech trees and their products should create sustainable benefits. Benefits may be derived from the biotech tree, its products, or scientific insight gained through forest biotechnology research. The Practices give users tools to help them enhance the benefits of forest biotechnology, mitigate risks and maintain the integrity of a biotech tree’s history as it moves along the value chain. Learn more about the Principles at ResponsibleUse.org
The following excerpt is from an article published by Capital Press
A pine tree genetically engineered for greater wood density can be grown without restrictions after the USDA decided it lacks authority to regulate the variety.
The finding has alarmed critics of genetically modified organisms who fear the new cultivar will cross-pollinate with trees in the wild, resulting in unknown consequences for forests.
ArborGen, a tree seedling producer, altered the loblolly pine variety with a gene gun inserting genetic material from the Monterey pine, the American sweetgum tree, mouse ear cress and E. coli bacteria.
None of these organisms are plant pest risks, so the USDA has determined the pine is not a regulated article and can be freely cultivated without undergoing environmental studies, unlike crops that rely on plant pathogens for their transformation.
Higher density in wood is generally associated with strength and durability in lumber as well as higher energy content for biomass uses, said Steven Strauss, a forest biotechnology professor at Oregon State University.
Biotech cultivars that rely on plant pests for gene transfer often undergo lengthy government scrutiny before theyre brought to market, he said.
The regulatory process is highly political. Its not just based on science Strauss said.
For this reason, companies are seeking alternate ways of commercializing genetically engineered crops, he said. Thats understandable from the commercial point of view.
Arborgen, for example, has tried to gain USDAs approval since 2008 for a freeze-tolerant eucalyptus tree, which was transformed with a soil pathogen and thus must receive the agencys permission for widepsread commercialization.
Environmental groups filed a lawsuit to block the company from field testing the trees, but that request was denied by a federal judge.
Even so, Arborgen was asked to submit additional data about the biotech tree in 2011 and the variety remains regulated while the USDA conducts an in-depth environmental review.
Critics of genetically modified organisms such as the Center for Food Safety worry that Arborgen was able to circumvent field trial permits and other regulatory procedures with its loblolly pine cultivar.
The group claims its unprecedented for USDA to allow a genetically engineered tree to be cultivated without any government oversight.
This is a genetically engineered organism that is going completely unregulated said Martha Crouch, biotechnology consultant for the organization.
Strauss, of OSU, said he would like to see more nimble regulations governing biotech crops but is nervous about USDAs lack of authority over GMOs produced without plant pests.
While the USDA may not consider such crops to be regulated articles, other countries may disagree ” creating the potential for chaos in the marketplace he said.
The Center for Food Safety is concerned about potential environmental impacts, alleging that changes in wood density could affect decomposition rates and forest species.
Because the USDA decided it lacks regulatory authority over the tree, the agency only considered the method of transformation without assessing any other potential risks that it might pose, said Crouch.
This is an end run around that Crouch said.
Very little information is available to the public in Arborgens request letter seeking regulatory clearance or the USDAs response, she said. We dont really know how they did it or how big of a change it is.
Arborgen was formed in 2000 by combining the biotechnology divisions of three forest products companies.
In 2010, the company filed reports with U.S. financial regulators in preparation for an initial public offering of its stock.
Those records show Arborgen losing nearly $15 million on roughly $22 million in revenues during that fiscal year. The firm later withdrew its plans to sell shares to the public due to poor market conditions.