Historic Protests Disrupt Industry Conference

Hundreds of activists from across the country converged on Asheville, North Carolina from Sunday, May 26 to Saturday, June 1 to protest the Tree Biotechnology 2013 conference, hosted by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO). They came to raise vocal and determined opposition to genetically engineered trees (GE trees). The conference occurs every two years and brings together leading tree engineers, students, and corporate representatives to discuss the science and politics of genetically engineering trees.

The conference was disrupted or protested by activists even before it began and almost every day it took place. On May 25, more than 1,000 people joined the March Against Monsanto in Asheville, with a vocal contingent protesting GE trees. On Monday morning, two Asheville residents were arrested after invading the conference and disrupting the opening session of the day. On Tuesday, the largest protest yet against GE trees took place as hundreds of people marched through the streets and rallied outside the conference hotel. A conference field trip on Wednesday was cancelled due to the threat of protests. On Thursday, three activists were arrested while blocking a conference bus headed to an exclusive dinner at the Biltmore Estate.

The conference was targeted due to plans by South Carolina-based GE tree company ArborGen and others to convert forests, farms, and other lands in the U.S. South into plantations of GE trees and other crops for production of liquid fuels and electricity. ArborGen is a joint initiative of International Paper, MeadWestvaco and the New Zealand-based Rubicon, some of the largest timber corporations in the world.

ArborGen has a request pending with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to commercially sell genetically engineered freeze-tolerant eucalyptus seedlings. According to Rubicon, ArborGen plans to sell half a billion GE eucalyptus tree seedlings annually for plantations from South Carolina to Texas. The USDA is preparing an Environmental Impact Statement on this and recently accepted public comments on ArborGen’s request. They received almost 38,000 comments opposed to the GE eucalyptus and only 4 comments in favor. 

Activists, however, believe the USDA is likely to rubber stamp approval of ArborGen’s request anyway and the protests at this IUFRO conference are initiating the process of mobilizing grassroots resistance throughout the threatened region.

Saturday’s March Against Mon- santo included participation from an estimated two million people around the world. During the Asheville event, where more than 1,000 people participated, organizer Tom Llewellen of the REAL Cooperative, drew the links between Monsanto and ArborGen. “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.” 

“The U.S. South is on the front lines of the fight to stop GE trees,” added Keith Brunner of the Global Justice Ecology Project. “ArborGen wants their GE eucalyptus trees growing in plantations across the region, but GE trees are not yet legal. This is still one fight we can win—one disaster we can stop before it’s too late. And if we stop them here, we can prevent the disaster of GE trees from being exported around the world.”

Two days later, during the first session of the Tree Biotechnology conference on Monday, two local activists from Asheville stood up and disrupted a talk by Belgian tree engineer Wout Boerjan entitled, “Engineering Trees for the Biorefinery.” Boerjan was targeted due to a presentation he made at the 2011 Tree Biotechnology conference in Brazil where he showed a video of anti-GMO activists being beaten by the police during a protest. Following the video he commented, “They didn’t hit them hard enough.”

Protesters oppose the use of trees to produce electricity and liquid fuel due to the dramatic increases in deforestation and displacement of forest dependent peoples it is causing around the world. The addition of unnatural and fast-growing GE trees will greatly exacerbate these problems.

“We know that GE trees are a disaster for forests and biodiversity,” said Laura Sorensen, a grandmother and one of the arrested demonstrators. “With predictions of worsening extreme weather in our region, the last things we need are highly flammable and invasive plantations of water-hungry eucalyptus trees. I see no future in this for my grandchildren.”

Following the arrests on Monday, the conference went on high alert. Police maintained a presence inside and outside the hotel conference center all day, participant badges were scrutinized, conference doors were locked during sessions, and hotel access was restricted.

Later that day, organizers held an “Extreme Energy Teach-In” that linked the dangers of GE tree-based bio-energy with other extreme energy technologies including mountaintop removal coal mining, hydrofracking, nuclear power, tar sands mining and synthetic biology. Teach-in participants explained that all of these extreme energies must be rejected, calling instead for a dramatic decrease in energy consumption.

Bioenergy from GE eucalyptus trees—which have been nicknamed “flammable kudzu” —is considered extreme because of the danger it poses. Eucalyptus trees are already a documented invasive species in Florida and California, and California spends millions annually to eradicate them due to their explosive flammability. The U.S. Forest Service released findings that ArborGen’s GE eucalyptus trees would use twice the water of native forests in the region. These factors, combined with the long-time drought being experienced in the U.S. South, make development of large-scale plantations of GE freeze-tolerant eucalyptus trees a potential disaster. 

Back in 2010, the USDA granted ArborGen permission to field test their freeze tolerant eucalyptus trees despite more than 17,500 comments opposing the tests and only 39 in favor. A lawsuit was filed against USDA by a coalition of groups (Global Justice Ecology Project, Dogwood Alliance, Center for Food Safety, Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity). In an article published in Biomass Magazine, a spokesperson for the Biotechnology Industry Organization credited the suit as “… a hindrance to biomass development, as they discourage investment… It is creating a huge barrier.” This lawsuit contributed to ArborGen cancelling plans to go public on the NASDAQ in 2011 and the replacement of their executive staff in 2012.

During the course of the industry conference, the problem of public opposition to GE trees was a recurring theme. The conference keynote speaker, Jerry Tuskan, is a tree engineer with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (one of the locations of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb). In his talk he raised concerns about “social misconceptions and social resistance.” He insisted that GE tree scientists would never dream of releasing “frankentrees,” and compared the public’s perception of tree engineers to the witches in MacBeth chanting spells over a steaming cauldron.

Tuskan explained that tree engineers are resequencing entire tree genomes with errors in the sequence of “only” 2 percent. He did not mention the potential impacts of this violation of the tree genome or the resequencing errors, but cheerleaded their ability to speed up tree growth rates, which would “have a positive impact on investment.”

The next day, following the disruption of his talk, Boerjan described his success in changing the cell structure in trees so they would more release more sugars and be easily broken down into ethanol. He did not address the potential impacts this would have on wildlife, soils or forest ecosystems. Unable to contain his contempt for activists, he explained that after anti-GMO protesters had threatened his poplar field trials in Belgium, he had erected a high voltage electric fence to protect them. About the prospect of activists trying to get past these fences, he added, “you can imagine the dreams I have…”

Following Boerjan, Cristina Vettori of the Plant Genetics Institute of Italy presented on the “biosafety” of GE trees. The talk did not, however, discuss the risks of trees or how to assess them, but focused on how to measure and manipulate public opinion, and create sustainability criteria for GE trees. 

Sustainability criteria is critical to enable GE trees to be accepted by entities like the European Union or certification bodies like the Forest Stewardship Council, that currently prohibit GE trees. 

The next day saw the largest ever protest against GE trees. More than 200 people marched to the conference hotel, where outraged activists staged a noisy protest for 4 hours, chanting slogans such as “GE trees—tear ’em up, ArborGen—shut ’em down.”

That evening, as protests raged outside, Brazilian/Israeli GE tree company FuturaGene hosted a panel titled “Forest Biotech Research at a Crossroads: What Does the Future Hold.” The “problem” of public opposition to GE trees became the center of the conversation, and the protest outside was clearly heard by participants.

Conference panelists lamented the fact that protesters were targeting them and that they could not get the public “on board” with their research and business plans. William Powell, who is leading research on genetically engineering the American Chestnut tree at the State University of New York in Syracuse, explained the need to get the public passionate about GE trees in order to facilitate legalizing their commercial release. He gave as an example the public passion that changed laws following the Newtown, Connecticut shooting.

The panelists also emphasized the need to find ways to communicate their science to the public in a way it would be understood. Boerjan explained, “for the public, the work we do is complex. We need to find ways to make them understand. Population genetics will show that their fear that GE trees will spread all over the world is not necessarily the case.”

 Boerjan’s vague assurance exemplifies the uncertainties that even tree engineers have about the impacts of releasing GE trees into the environment. In a 2006 report put out by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization about forest biotechnology, a survey of GE tree scientists found that the most common reported concern was “unintended contamination of non-target species.”

Adam Costanza of the Institute for Forest Biotechnology and formerly with International Paper was another member of the panel. He 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.”

The Campaign to STOP GE Trees, however, includes more than 245 organizations, as well as biologists, foresters, plant scientists and geneticists. The Campaign uses analysis of industry science to advocate for a global ban on the release of GE trees into the environment. The Campaign asserts that it is industry that is ignoring science, with virtually no independent risk assessments of genetically engineered trees. Corporations are rushing to release GE trees by the hundreds of millions with no understanding of the long-term ramifications this will have on forests or communities.

Biologist Dr. Rachel Smolker, a member of the Steering Committee of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees, points out, “GE food crops have already taught us some lessons about unanticipated problems…including failure of engineered traits to be expressed consistently, cross-contamination with wild relatives and evolution of resistant weeds and pests. Nature is messy and unpredictable. Things do not happen ‘out there’ as they do in test tubes in sterile-controlled laboratory settings. Genetic manipulation of trees raises particular problems because trees live for a long time, undergo many physiological changes over their life span, and respond to changes in the environment (especially with global warming). Once they run amok, there will be no chance of going back.”

The serious nature of the threats from GE trees combined with the casual dismissal of activists’ concerns contributed to a confrontational protest on Thursday evening that took place as conference participants boarded buses headed for an exclusive dinner at the Biltmore Estate. During the protest, three demonstrators were brutally arrested when they attempted to use GMO caution tape to wrap one of the conference buses. 

Will Bennington, a campaigner with Global Justice Ecology Project and the Campaign to STOP GE Trees, was one of those arrested. He said, “We blocked the buses because conference attendees were on their way to dinner at the Biltmore Estate. Built by the Vanderbilts, the Biltmore is a symbol of the wealthy and powerful, and one of the birthplaces of industrial forestry in the U.S., which wiped out forests from coast to coast. The tree biotechnology industry is continuing this destructive legacy. They plan to cut down native forests and replace them with GE tree plantations grown solely for the profit of the elite at the expense of local communities and biodiversity.”

Following his arrest during the conference disruption earlier in the week, 70-year-old farmer and professor Steve Norris said, “We took dignified action today to directly confront the growing corporate control over our seeds, forests, and communities. We are sending a crystal clear message to the GE tree industry and its investors—expect resistance.”

A grassroots campaign of opposition to GE tree plantations across the U.S. South was launched with the week of actions against the Tree Biotechnology conference and activists are committed to ensuring GE tree plantations are never developed.


Anne Petermann is the Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project and the Coordinator of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees. Orin Langelle is the Board Chair of Global Justice Ecology Project and the Director of Langelle Photography. They are based in Buffalo, New York. 

Photos by Orin Langelle. Photo 1: Protesters gather at the Tree BioTech Conference, aster the May 28 march. Photo 2: Opponents of Gentetically-engineered trees join the march against Monsanto, Asheville NC. Photo 3: Demonstators across from the Tree Biotech conference. Photo 4: Protesters demand a ban on the release of GE treets into the environment. Photo 5: Police arrest activist at the bus action.