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Environmentalists Are Urging the USDA to Reject This Genetically Engineered Eucalyptus Tree

A genetically engineered, freeze-tolerant eucalyptus tree is moving closer to receiving approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, amid concerns about the tree’s possible negative effects on the environment.

The USDA has proposed lifting restrictions on commercial production of the trees, based on a draft environmental impact statement that concluded the trees pose few significant environmental risks. Planting the trees would “either not differ or may be slightly worse from those caused by the cultivation of planted plantation pine,” the report said.

Brazil approved a genetically modified eucalyptus, created by biotechnology company FuturaGene, for commercial growth two years ago. But this would become the first genetically engineered tree approved for commercial use in the United States.

The announcement comes six years after forestry and biotechnology firm ArborGen filed a petition for deregulation with the USDA, and more than a decade after it began field testing the trees in the United States.

It’s unclear when the final decision on the trees will be made. The agency is considering public comments and it still needs to confer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the tree’s potential impact on wildlife.

“If there are no new significant issues or information that’s relevant to the environmental impacts, that would require any substantial changes, then we’ll finalize the environmental impact statement and send it on [to the Environmental Protection Agency] to publish,” said Richard Coker, a legislative and public affairs specialist with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. If substantial new information about the trees is discovered in the public comments, the agency may reconsider its recommendation to approve the trees.

The USDA has projected in its environmental impact statement that about a million acres of pine plantations could be replaced with the eucalyptus trees, if it wins approval.

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