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GMO tree plan grows a debate in Española

A genetically engineered version of the white poplar tree would be used to produce a rose oil product in Española under a proposal by Ealasid Inc. (Courtesy of USDA-NRCS Plants Database/D.E. Herman)

A genetically engineered version of the white poplar tree would be used to produce a rose oil product in Española under a proposal by Ealasid Inc. (Courtesy of USDA-NRCS Plants Database/D.E. Herman)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Who knew that rose oil, or at least a major component of rose oil, could be the next big agricultural product in the Española Valley?

A scientist from Washington State University wants to plant genetically engineered poplar trees along the Rio Grande on the north side of Española that will produce 2-phenylethanol, which provides the sweet scent of roses.

The market for the stuff, now mostly produced synthetically from non-renewable resources (roses themselves apparently aren’t terribly efficient), is huge. It’s used in foods, candy, flavored teas and other drinks, lotions, soaps and powders.

“There’s probably not a day goes by that you don’t consume it or put it on your body,” said Keith Jones, who is partnering in the project with Norman Lewis, director of Washington State’s Institute of Biological Chemistry.

Jones said the idea of producing natural chemical products in trees is “cutting edge” and that Lewis is one of the world’s experts in the science of how chemicals accumulate in plants and changing them to produce more or different substances.

The poplar trees would be mowed down after they get 6 to 8 feet tall. A simple steaming process would distill the 2-phenylethanol on site.

Jones described the project as “high-density, high-value agriculture.”

It would start with five employees but would be expected to eventually employ 30 to 50 people.

The Española City Council has approved leasing the city-owned, 93-acre Prince/Carter Ranch to Ealasid Inc., Lewis and Jones’ company.

But not everyone in northern New Mexico is happy about the possible coming of genetically engineered trees.

Some area farmers and others have signed petitions against the project, and they were recently sent to Española officials. So far about 150 signatures have been filed, but more are being gathered at farmers markets and elsewhere.

“We feel that this genetically engineered material threatens our ecosystem and our ability to make a living as farmers and ranchers,” says one petition.

It notes that Española recently removed invasive species such as salt cedar, Russian olives and Siberian elms from the Rio Grande’s riparian area. “We feel that your GMO (genetically modified organism) poplars will be more detrimental than those you have just removed, as it threatens all poplars in the ecosystem including cottonwood, willow and aspen.”

Gregg Nussbaum, of the Camino de la Paz School and Farm in Santa Cruz, has been leading the effort. He said the prospect of another non-native tree species is “an enormous thing” for anyone who manages land.

Matt Romero, a well-known provider of organic vegetables with farms at Alcalde and Dixon, said: “What if this is the next Russian thistle or Siberia elm that can’t be controlled?”

The poplar tree project brings the international debate over GMOs to the Española Valley. Opponents are worried about possible unforeseen consequences. “This is genetically engineered material that has never existed before on the face of the Earth,” Nussbaum said. “No one is thinking of the repercussions of putting that stuff out there.”

“It seems like releasing a beast that doesn’t need to be there,” Romero said.

Nussbaum questioned why the city’s “absolutely pristine, premium” Prince/Carter Ranch land hasn’t been offered to local growers. He said 20 small farmers could make $60,000 to $100,000 a year each from the property.

Romero said the poplar project “can’t be the answer for this small little ranch in an area that is as historic as historic gets.”

‘Value-added agriculture’

Eric Vasquez, of the nonprofit Regional Development Corp. in Española that works with Los Alamos National Laboratory and local communities to promote economic development, maintains the project is in fact a way to sustain the area’s agriculture. “It’s never going to be a huge employer, but for a community that wants to maintain its agricultural base, this is creating value-added agriculture,” he said.

He added: “The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) has to sign off before any tree goes in the ground.”

Lewis says the project would operate under strict federal controls and that the poplar trees will never pollinate. The fast-growing plants will be harvested up to twice a year and then removed before they’re 5 years old, when pollination begins, he said.

Lewis defends the work of scientists “trying to meet humanity’s needs” by studying plants and how to improve the production of beneficial substances, and said there’s no evidence of any problems from the kind of genetic engineering used in his poplar trees. He asked what would happen if blight wiped out a tree that produced chemicals used to fight cancer. “We’re simply trying to understand how plants work and make the things we know they generate,” he said.

Jones noted that the poplar trees aren’t food plants, often the focus of GMO criticism. He added that Ealasid is no giant agribusiness. “We’re not Monsanto,” he said. “At this point we’re just two guys.”

Under the city lease, there will be no rent through 2015 and after that the rate for the 10-year term is $28,000 annually plus $300 per acre-foot of water used from a well at the ranch.

Project not definite

Jones and local officials emphasized that no final decision has been made to go forward with tree plantings at the Española site.

There’s clearly worry among supporters of the project that public opposition could scare away Lewis and Jones and their poplars. At a meeting last week of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, a study of the project was proposed to answer questions about the ecological safety of the project.

Although LANL has no direct connection to the project at this point, Vasquez said Lewis could end up with a part-time job at the lab.

Darien Cabral, executive director of the LANL communities coalition, said the Ealasid project represents a first effort to recruit high-tech economic development to the Española Valley instead of having lab patents or tech offshoots producing jobs out of state.

Cabral said no one wants to see the valley’s traditional crops potentially endangered but the genetically engineered poplars aren’t food plants and represent a strictly controlled exception that should cause no problems.

At last week’s meeting, Española Mayor Alice Lucero said there is “a lot of misunderstanding” about the trees. “We need to educate the community and the region on what is happening on the ranch,” she said.

At this point, it looks like both sides will make sure that kind of education takes place in the near future.

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