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For the first time ever, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is weighing whether to commercialize a GE tree in the continental United States. Should the transgenic "C5" plum tree be approved, it could be planted anywhere in the country without a permit. Approval is likely and is being eagerly awaited by farmers who want the tree for its engineered resistance to the plum pox virus. Still, many environmentalists say any benefit from GE trees is far outweighed by their risks, which are compounded in the case of trees by the role they play as the backbone of many ecosystems. Opponents expect the application to open the flood gates to many more ecologically significant creations based on poplar and pine trees.
To date, the only GE tree approved for use in the U.S. is a disease-resistant papaya grown in Hawaii. According to Greenpeace, profits from the papaya fell as counties in Asia and Europe rejected Hawaii's exports.
The Sierra Club weighed in against the plum in a public comment period that ended late last month. "Since plums grow wild and can hybridize, not to mention growing very efficiently from seeds, we'd be opposed because the GE variety would be sure to spread," said Jim Diamond, chair of the club's Genetic Engineering Committee. Having learned from the PR disasters of past GE crops, the GE tree industry employs a sophisticated PR machine that is sure to become more prominent in the coming year.