International Paper’s ArborGen joint venture with MeadWestvaco Corp. and New Zealand’s Rubicon Ltd. is seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sell the first genetically engineered forest trees outside China. The Australian eucalyptus trees are designed to survive freezes in the U.S. South.
Plantations of engineered trees would give International Paper a competitive advantage by providing a reliable supply of lower cost wood at a time when timberlands are dwindling because of development, said David Liebetreu, the Memphis, Tennessee- based company’s vice president of global sourcing. Opponents are concerned that alien genes may contaminate natural forests, echoing objections to modified crops that Monsanto still faces.
“There is a potential to explode once they get these trees approved,” said David Knott, who manages $1.3 billion as chief executive officer of Dorset Management in Syosett, New York. He said he increased his stake in Rubicon to 70.5 million shares this year to bet on ArborGen because it has a customer base of large landowners and little competition. “This could take off faster than Monsanto.”
Monsanto’s genetics, which were first sold in herbicide- tolerant soybeans in 1996 and insect-resistant corn the following year, were used in 88 percent of the world’s 309 million acres of biotech plantings last year. Monsanto’s sales of seeds and genetics quadrupled since 2002 to $6.4 billion last year.
ArborGen may boost yearly sales to $500 million in 2017 from $25 million by following Monsanto’s blueprint for commercializing engineered plants, said Stephen Walker, head of asset management at New Zealand-based Goldman Sachs JBWere Ltd., which owns Rubicon shares and holds no stock in International Paper or MeadWestvaco. The partners eventually might sell shares of ArborGen to the public, International Paper’s Liebetreu said.
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service may approve sales of freeze-tolerant eucalyptus trees by late 2010, ArborGen Chief Executive Officer Barbara Wells said. The company also is developing trees that are easier to pulp and that grow twice as fast, said Wells, a former Monsanto executive who has a doctorate in agronomy.
ArborGen’s eucalyptus would become the first engineered forest tree sold in the U.S., where disease-resistant plum and papaya trees already are permitted, according to a USDA database. China has planted about 1.4 million biotech black poplars since commercialization in 2002.
Engineered eucalyptus trees could be an ecological disaster, bringing increased fire risk and extraordinary water consumption to a new environment, said Neil J. Carman, an Austin, Texas-based member of the Sierra Club’s genetic engineering committee. Easier-to-pulp trees will be weak, and hurricanes will spread their pollen and contaminate native forests, he said.
“These are Frankenforests,” Carman said. “You are tampering with Mother Nature in a big way by putting genetically engineered trees out there.”
The group won a court order in 2007 requiring Monsanto to pull modified alfalfa plants from the market while the USDA reviewed their environmental impact more thoroughly, and Carman said a similar strategy may be used against modified trees.
ArborGen says that genes won’t spread because its trees grow on plantations, not in forests, and are engineered to be infertile with impaired pollen production.
About 4 percent of the world’s 8.5 billion forest acres are plantations, and 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of new plantations are added annually, according to the United Nations.
“It’s through plantation forests and increased productivity that you protect native forests,” ArborGen’s Wells said. “We pursue products that we know are environmentally safe.”
ArborGen, based in Summerville, South Carolina, was created in 2000 when the three partners pooled their tree-research assets and intellectual property. The venture sells about 300 million conventional tree seedlings a year to 2,000 customers in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.
Rubicon derives most of its value from ArborGen, one of two ventures it owns. International Paper and MeadWestvaco, a cardboard maker, are so large that their 33 percent stakes in ArborGen aren’t material to earnings, the companies said.
Sustainable Hardwood Source
The papermaker’s main interest in ArborGen is the potential of modified trees such as cold-tolerant eucalyptus to provide a sustainable source of hardwood for pulp, Liebetreu said. That becomes more important as the U.S. starts to make biofuels from timber, which may double harvest pressure in the U.S. South, International Paper said in a June 9 letter to USDA.
“If you could go back and buy Monsanto when it was just starting to develop genetically modified seeds, would you do it?” said Walker of Goldman Sachs JBWere. “I think so.”
Parallels with Monsanto aren’t a coincidence. Wells, 54, spent 18 years at that company, including four years introducing modified soybeans in Brazil. ArborGen Chief Science Officer Maud Hinchee and James Mann, vice president of business development, also worked at St. Louis-based Monsanto.
ArborGen may charge 20 times more for its engineered trees than its cheapest seedlings and two to three times more than its best conventional products as it claims a share of the revenue landowners gain from growing high-quality wood faster, according to Rubicon’s July update. Monsanto’s modified corn and soybean seeds are priced to grab as much as half the increased income farmers realize from higher yields and lower pest-control costs.
ArborGen became the world’s largest seedling producer when it bought assets from its parent companies in 2007, making it the only tree developer with its own market channel for genetic technology, Wells said. Others developing gene-modified trees, including FuturaGene Plc in the U.K. and SweTree Technologies in Sweden, lack seedling businesses and aren’t yet pursuing permission for commercial sales.
Monsanto’s research into genetically modified trees is limited to a Brazilian collaboration on eucalyptus and citrus trees at Alellyx SA, which Monsanto acquired in November after the project began, spokeswoman Kelli Powers said.
ArborGen next plans to seek U.S. approval to sell loblolly pine, used for lumber and paper, engineered to mature in 18 years rather than 26. In Brazil, ArborGen plans to seek approval for eucalyptus that matures in four years, rather than seven, and eucalyptus with reduced lignin.
Extracting lignin, a brown polymer that hardens trees, is one of the most expensive and polluting parts of making pulp, said Graeme P. Berlyn, professor at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
“They definitely will find a market if they can do what they claim,” Berlyn said.
There is a small chance some modified trees will produce pollen and fertilize conventional relatives, Berlyn said. Populations contaminated with low-lignin traits could be weakened and vulnerable to breakage for thousands of years before evolution eliminates the inferior genetics, he said.
“All of this is a bit troubling,” said Berlyn, who edits the Journal of Sustainable Forestry.
While ArborGen awaits approval to sell cold-tolerant eucalyptus, it also is seeking USDA permission to expand a 57- acre test of the trees to 330 acres, mainly in Texas, Florida and Alabama.
ArborGen is working with different eucalyptus species than those that have become pests in California, and the biotech trees are “unlikely” to prove invasive in the U.S. South, according to the USDA. The draft environmental assessment on expanded field testing drew thousands of comments opposing the USDA’s conclusion that the research poses an insignificant risk.
The proposed field tests involve 260,000 experimental trees and are tantamount to commercial approval, the Sierra Club’s Carman said. If the field tests are approved, the Sierra Club may sue the USDA to compel a more thorough study, known as an environmental impact statement, he said.
In 2007, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco ordered the USDA to conduct such an assessment of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa and blocked further sales after the Sierra Club and organic farmer groups challenged the plant’s approval. The USDA hasn’t yet released an assessment of ArborGen’s application to commercialize modified eucalyptus.
Approval would set ArborGen on a path to sell 275 million engineered seedlings a year by 2018, assuming its first five modified trees are permitted, contributing to after-tax cash flows of as much as $700 million, according to an April report commissioned by Rubicon.