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By Carey L. Biron
The Brazilian government will receive inquiries from the public on the commercialization of these transgenic trees during the first week of September. Similarly, the United States authorities will soon release a draft environmental impact assessment that began in early 2013.
Despite claims to the contrary by the paper industry, critical voices warn that the use of genetically modified (GM) trees will exacerbate deforestation. The official approvals from Washington and Brasilia would mean the starting point for a whole new range of products that would also be developed by other countries.
"If Brazil and the United States receive permission to commercialize these trees, nothing would prevent them from exporting these products for other countries to grow them," said Anne Petermann, executive director of the environmental organization Project Ecologist for Global Justice (GJEP) and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop GM Trees, a network that announced a global initiative on Wednesday the 20th.
"GM trees would grow faster and have a higher economic value, so ... current conventional plantations would be converted to transgenic plantations in many parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia," he said in a dialogue with IPS.
"In addition, both Europe and the United States are studying other genetically engineered trees that would generate a whole series of additional potential impacts," said Petermann.
So far, the United States has only authorized the use of two transgenic fruit trees. Eucalyptus will be the first GM forest species with official approval. The European Union, Australia and other countries are considering similar approvals, while China already produces GM poplars.
The plantation approach
Eucalyptus is a particularly lucrative tree and is the most widely planted hardwood in the world. It is mainly used to produce pulp and paper products.
The United States will likely use eucalyptus as well to fuel the growing global demand for biofuels, particularly in the form of wood pellets or briquettes. The country is the world's largest producer of briquettes, and in 2012 alone its exports grew 70 percent.
The United States authorities are studying two types of genetically modified eucalyptus to resist frost and certain antibiotics, which would allow to have plantations much further north. The company that requested official approval, ArborGen, maintains that with the introduction of its seedlings, the areas of this country that could plant eucalyptus trees would be expanded by four.
ArborGen estimates that official authorization would multiply its sales by 20, to about $ 500 million a year in 2017, according to a report published in 2013 by the Center for Food Safety. In the same way, Brazilian analysts predict that the market for eucalyptus products will expand 500 percent in the next 20 years.
But it is proven that eucalyptus, which was grown in conventional plantations for years, is especially problematic and even dangerous as a monoculture.
Eucalyptus requires an extremely high volume of water to grow and is very invasive. Trees are also highly combustible. It is estimated that nearly three-quarters of the energy in the flames of a devastating wildfire in western California in the 1990s came from eucalyptus trees.
Many fear that the official seal of the United States and Brazil will promote the monoculture production model.
"This model was shown to be very negative for local communities and nature, as it expels and limits people's access to their territories and deteriorates and pollutes water resources, especially in the global South," said Winfridus Overbeek, Coordinator of the World Movement for Tropical Forests, in dialogue with IPS from Uruguay.
“Many of these plantations in Brazil are an obstacle to the much-needed agrarian reform that would allow many hungry people to finally produce food on their own land. But with the plantation model, most of the wood that is produced is destined for export, to meet the growing demand for paper elsewhere, ”he explained.
As the Brazilian farmers say, "you cannot eat eucalyptus," Overbeek stressed.
More wood, more land
Despite the rise of digital media, the global paper industry continues to be a giant that feeds on the daily demand of one million tons of paper and its by-products. In 2010, 400 million tons of paper were used, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, and the figure could rise to 500 million tons a year by the end of this decade.
ArborGen and other voices in favor of transgenic trees and the plantation system in general argue that greater use of “cultivated” trees will reduce the pressure on indigenous forests. In fact, the motto of the company is “More wood. Less land ”.
But the repercussions of monoculture are obvious. Indonesia, for example, has allowed more than half of its forests to be cut down in the past 50 years to make way for palm plantations.
According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), global plantations doubled their average wood production between 1990 and 2010, but their size also grew 60 percent.
“Although faster growing trees look cute and useful, it is actually the opposite. As they acquire more value, more land is allocated to them, ”said Petermann of GJEP.
"Especially in Brazil, for example, where the intensification of wood in each hectare causes more and more land to be converted" to monoculture, he added.
In June, more than 120 environmental groups from around the world proposed comprehensive reforms to ensure the sustainability of the paper industry, which has traditionally been a key driver of deforestation. The proposal, A global vision for paper, exhorts users and producers to "reject fiber from genetically modified organisms."
"We advocate conserving and reducing consumption as logical first steps before manipulating nature and putting natural systems at risk of contamination," said Joshua Martin, director of the Paper Environmental Network, a US-based organization that coordinated the proposal.