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 they’re brought to market, he said.
“The regulatory process is highly political. It’s not just based on science,” Strauss said.
For this reason, companies are seeking alternate ways of commercializing genetically engineered crops, he said. “That’s understandable from the commercial point of view.”
Arborgen, for example, has tried to gain USDA’s approval since 2008 for a freeze-tolerant eucalyptus tree, which was transformed with a soil pathogen and thus must receive the agency’s permission for widespread 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 it’s 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 USDA’s 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 Arborgen’s request letter seeking regulatory clearance or the USDA’s response, she said. “We don’t 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.