Genetic Engineering Hang-Up

Lawsuit highlights a barrier to biotechnology advancements in the U.S.
By Lisa Gibson | April 29, 2011

ArborGen Inc.’s genetically engineered freeze-tolerant eucalyptus tree has been shown to withstand temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit, enabling its planting in some Southern U.S. areas. But the USDA has been sued by a group of conservation organizations who argue that the non-native tree is invasive and could displace native wildlife and plants, increasing wildfire risk.

The Dogwood Alliance, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the International Center for Technology Assessment, the Center for Food Safety, and the Global Justice Ecology Project together allege that allowing the tests along the Gulf Coast and into South Carolina would be a disaster and lead to a loss of native forests and biodiversity. The tests could also lead to groundwater depletion, the group contends, and worsened climate change. In addition, the organizations have raised concerns about ArborGen’s petition for deregulation of the tree, which would allow commercialization and cultivation without restrictions or permits.

ArborGen declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit, but Karen Batra, director of communications for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, says the deregulation petition is a standard aspect of the biotechnology process and accounts for any environmental impacts. The petition includes reams and reams of paperwork including results of multiple studies such as environmental assessments, impact assessments, and field tests among others. The insect-resistant corn widely grown today went through the same procedure, she explains.

“As part of the research and development process, as well as the process to petition for deregulation, you would have to look at the environmental impacts of these products and if there was any danger to the environment, you would not have a petition for deregulation,” she says. “The company would go back and look at what that impact was and would address it in the field trial stage or in the research and development stage. And that’s certainly not the case here.”

ArborGen’s deregulation petition has been pending with the USDA for nearly 2½ years now, a long but standard wait for such a request. The wait time has increased by 700 percent since 1995, Batra says. “At that time when the technology was new, we could get these through in less than a year,” she says. “Now that the technology is about 20 years old and we’ve got scientists that are reviewing these applications and know more about the technology, it’s taking two and three and four years. It is what we would call unreasonable, but unfortunately, it’s become typical.” Currently, 23 deregulation petitions, including ArborGen’s, are pending with the USDA.

Lawsuits like the one involving the genetically engineered eucalyptus trees have become a hindrance to biomass development, as they discourage investment. “Obviously, the litigious environment we have seen in the past couple years is representing a tremendous deterrent to investment in [biotechnology], especially on the biomass side, where a lot of them are start-up companies.” Batra says. “It’s making it very hard to get investments and to see their way through what could be five and 10 years in development of a product, if when you finally do get to a point where you’re close to commercialization, you’re going to have to deal with litigation. It is creating a huge barrier.”