Amidst Opposition, a Conference and Industry in Crisis

Amidst Opposition, a Conference and Industry in Crisis

- by Will Bennington, Global Justice Ecology Project 

(Photo: Orin Langelle/photolangelle.org)

Hundreds of activists descended upon Asheville, North Carolina in May for a week of major protests at the international bi-annual Tree Biotechnology conference. The conference, hosted by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), is a major gathering for genetically engineered (GE) tree industry representatives, researchers and policy makers.

The first victory came several weeks before the conference, when a field trip to an active forestry site was cancelled. Protest organizers believe the field trip was cancelled due to the threat of protests.

On Monday, May 26, the first full day of the conference, two Asheville residents disrupted a talk by Belgian tree engineer Wout Boerjian titled, “Engineering Trees for the Biorefinery.” Laura Sorenson, a grandmother, and Steven Norris, a farmer and professor, were both arrested after the disruption.

“We took dignified action today to directly confront the growing corporate control over our seeds, forests, and communities,” Norris said. “We are sending a crystal clear message to the GE tree industry and its investors—expect resistance.”

GE trees for biofuels

Activists are particularly concerned with the United States Department of Agriculture’s recent announcement that they are preparing an Environmental Impact Statement regarding the deregulation of cold-tolerant genetically engineered eucalyptus trees developed by GE tree company ArborGen, which has offices in the US, Brazil and Australia. They are jointly owned by some of the largest timber corporations in the world—International Paper, MeadWestvaco and Rubicon.

Rubicon CEO Luke Moriarty has stated that ArborGen plans to sell half a billion GE eucalyptus seedlings annually for bioenergy plantations across the US South. Eucalyptus is highly invasive, flammable, and extremely water-intensive. If perfected in the US, these GE freeze tolerant trees will expand the disaster of eucalyptus plantations around the world to regions currently too cold for conventional eucalyptus trees.

A recent boom in the biofuel industry throughout the region has activists particularly concerned that plantations of GE eucalyptus, pine, and poplar will play a major role in feeding new wood pellet facilities, biomass incinerators, and cellulosic biofuel plants.

Throughout the week, members of Global Justice Ecology Project and Earth First! spoke with several conference attendees. Many of them whole-heartedly support an expansion of the new “bioeconomy,” including the use of fast-growing GE trees to supply demand. One Virginia Tech researcher accidentally recited ArborGen’s motto, “more wood, less land,” while simultaneously justifying the use of GE trees and insisting that industry does not influence academic research.

ArborGen and their Brazilian competitor FuturaGene were major sponsors of the conference. Both are seeking government approval for the commercial release of their GE tree “products,” despite a decision by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2008 that warned countries of the dangers of GE trees and urged them to use the Precautionary Approach regarding GE trees, including confining all trials to the greenhouse.

Monsanto and ArborGen – Connecting the dots

A day before the conference began, on Saturday, May 25, millions of people around the world participated in the March Against Monsanto. In Asheville, ArborGen was a major focus of the March Against Monsanto, attended by over 1,000 people.

Tom Llewellyn of the REAL Cooperative drew the links between Monsanto and ArborGen during the march. "Many Monsanto employees have gone to work at ArborGen, including many of their executive staff. Monsanto was even an early partner in the forest biotechnology venture that later became ArborGen."

On Tuesday, May 28, over 200 activists from around the US descended upon the conference center during the largest protest to date against the GE tree industry. Citing concerns over the devastating impacts that GE eucalyptus, pine and poplar plantations would have on the biodiverse forests of the world, the crowd rallied for four hours outside of the conference, chanting slogans such as “GE trees—tear ‘em up, ArborGen—shut ‘em down!”

Linking the GE tree industry to controversial GMO seed companies like Monsanto could have a crippling effect on investment and public acceptance of field trials and commercial applications.

Industry in crisis

As protests raged outside, FuturaGene, a Brazilian/Israeli company, held a panel discussion titled, “Forest Biotech at the Crossroads: What Does the Future Hold?” The panel was mired by debate around public opposition to the GE tree industry.

Adam Costanza of the Institute for Forest Biotechnology and formerly with International Paper explained his interpretation of the public's opposition to GE trees. "Public perception is not awareness," he argued. "Regarding those with ethical questions [about GE trees], facts are not useful for them," adding that "concerns are not based on science."

On Thursday, three demonstrators were brutally arrested after attempting to wrap a bus full of conference attendees in “GMO caution tape.” The buses were headed to a dinner at the Biltmore Estate, a pillar of modern industrial forestry in the US.

Johanna Anderson, a local organizer with Katuah Earth First!, was among those arrested. “Trees should not be burned for fuel. Those proposing bioenergy say it is a solution to climate change, which is a disturbing lie,” she said. “Monoculture plantations for bioenergy are already displacing Indigenous Peoples and local communities all over the world, and will have a major impact on rural livelihoods and biodiversity here in the US South.”

A grassroots campaign to prevent GE tree plantations from devastating the southern US was launched with the week of action against the Tree Biotechnology conference. Activists are committed to stopping all proposed applications of GE trees in the region.

For Asheville residents, the impacts of burning trees to create electricity are extremely relevant, as Progress Energy—the city’s major utility—has a deal pending to purchase electricity produced by Florida-based EcoGen. EcoGen plans to establish eucalyptus plantations in Florida to fuel twenty biomass incinerators and pellet facilities across the region. ArborGen’s cold-tolerant eucalyptus would enable the expansion of these plantations as far north as South Carolina.

After her arrest on Monday, Laura Sorenson said, “We know that GE trees are a disaster for forests and biodiversity. With predictions of worsening extreme weather in our region, the last thing we need are highly flammable and invasive plantations of water-hungry eucalyptus trees. As a grandmother, I see no future in this for my grandchildren.”

The Tree Biotechnology 2015 conference will take place in Florence, Italy.

The week of protests against the Tree Biotechnology 2013 conference was organized by the Campaign to STOP GE Trees, Katuah Earth First!, Croatan Earth First!, REAL Cooperative, Everglades Earth First!, Global Forest Coalition, Biofuelwatch and Global Justice Ecology Project.

For more photos and coverage from the week of protests, visit treebiotech2013.org

To sign the petition demanding a ban on GE trees, visit globaljusticeecology.org/petition.php