Genetically Engineered Tree Company ArborGen Found Guilty of Abusing Workers: $53.5 Million Awarded to Employees

Just before the holidays a judge ruled in favor of ten ArborGen workers, resulting in a $53.5 million judgement against the biotech firm, as well as its founders, International Paper, MeadWestvaco (now WestRock) and New Zealand-based Rubicon, plus several of their executive staff and Board members.

Unfortunately, the story came out on 29 January, in the middle of a holiday week, and was almost completely unreported.

“We have always argued that ArborGen is acting recklessly in their pursuit of the commercial development of risky and unproven genetically engineered eucalyptus, pine and other trees.  It turns out we have good reason to be concerned.  If ArborGen is lying to and defrauding their own employees, how can we believe anything they say about the ‘safety’ of their GE trees?” stated Dr. Rachel Smolker, co-Director of Biofuelwatch.

On 29 January, the Charleston, SC Post and Courier reported that the judge in the case ruled the workers had been tricked by ArborGen and the others into accepting incentive plan changes that depleted most of their wealth.

The Post and Courier quoted Chip Bruorton, a lawyer with Rosen Hagood who represented the workers stated, “The defendants orchestrated a scheme to [give] the employees false information, misrepresentations and concealment as part of a wrongful scheme to defraud them [and fail] to provide the employees with the value they were entitled to.”

The trial showed the 10 employees should have received a combined $11.3 million of equity but instead were coerced into accepting a new financial plan that provided a combined $414,330 of equity.

From the from Summary of Court’s Findings of Fact, [p. 96]: “This court finds that ArborGen’s … employees …were in turn abused by ArborGen, its founders, its board members and its management team.  The Defendants orchestrated a cover-up scheme created and executed to switch the Plaintiffs out of the [original financial plan] that the Defendants had determined to be ‘too rich’…”

In the Summary [pp 156-157], the judge found that ArborGen Executive staff and Board members resorted to “trickery and deceit” with an “intent to defraud.”

The judge further stated,

“A review [of the facts] leads inexorably to the conclusion that Defendants used deception, misplaced trust, and pressure tactics to convince Plaintiffs to sign up for the [less valuable] financial Plan.

“Rather than be honest and candid, Defendants relied on trickery and deceit.

“The aim was to help ArborGen and its founders by getting rid of a plan that was viewed as too good for the employees.

“Plaintiffs have proven by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants’ attempted

Termination of Plaintiffs’ contract rights … amounted to breach of contract accompanied by fraudulent act, and that the fraudulent acts element … was committed with an intent to defraud.”

In September, Global Justice Ecology Project and the Campaign to STOP GE Trees organized an action at the world headquarters of ArborGen resulting in two arrests.  The aim of the action was to expose ArborGen’s refusal to divulge information about plans to commercialize their GE loblolly pines, which the USDA said could move forward with no environmental or social impact review and no public input.  The action also highlighted the growing public opposition to GE trees.

In 2015 alone, more than a quarter of a million people signed on to reject genetically engineered trees and protests took place on 6 continents.

After the action, ArborGen made their first public statement about their work on GE loblolly pines and other GE trees in a local paper.  In it, they argued that they were not working on GE loblolly pines and had “no plans…right now” to offer GE products.

In light of the recent lawsuit, however, these claims are coming under increased scrutiny.  “If they lie to their employees, why wouldn’t they lie about their plans to release GE trees?” asked stated Ruddy Turnstone, GE Tree Campaigner for Global Justice Ecology Project and Steering Committee member of the international Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees.  “The US government, for example, lists two active ArborGen GE loblolly pine field trials in South Carolina and Georgia.”

ArborGen is also developing freeze-tolerant GE eucalyptus trees, which are being trialed across six Gulf Coast states. In 2011 ArborGen submitted a petition to the USDA requesting permission to commercially sell this GE eucalyptus, prompting an Environmental Impact Statement, which has yet to be released to the public.  On November 18th, the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that the US Fish and Wildlife Service was evaluating this EIS.

In a statement to shareholders, Rubicon CEO Luke Moriarty (a defendant in the lawsuit) said ArborGen plans to sell half a billion of these GE eucalyptus every year for plantations from South Carolina to Texas. ArborGen keeps the locations of their GE trees secret and refuses to provide information about them to the public.

In December, MeadWestvaco, another co-founder of ArborGen, dropped the charges against the protesters than face a jury trial. ArborGen’s world headquarters are situated on MeadWestvaco land.

ArborGen claims their GE trees are safe and will have no environmental impact.  But GE eucalyptus trees, for example, are not only prone to be invasive, they are explosively flammable–leading Jim Hightower to call them “living firecrackers.”  They have also been likened to “flammable kudzu.”  They are not native to this hemisphere and wildlife cannot use them.  In Brazil eucalyptus plantations are called “Green Deserts” because nothing can live in them.

GE tree opponents promise to continue to increase the heat in 2016.  People can sign on to the petition against GE trees here.

More articles by:

Anne Petermann is the Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project and the Coordinator of the International Campaign to STOP GE Trees.  She has been working on the problem of GE trees since first learning of them in 1999.

December 18, 2018
Charles Pierson
Where No Corn Has Grown Before: Better Living Through Climate Change?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Waters of American Democracy
Patrick Cockburn
Will Anger in Washington Over the Murder of Khashoggi End the War in Yemen?
George Ochenski
Trump is on the Ropes, But the Pillage of Natural Resources Continues
Farzana Versey
Tribals, Missionaries and Hindutva
Robert Hunziker
Is COP24 One More Big Bust?
David Macaray
The Truth About Nursing Homes
Nino Pagliccia
Have the Russian Military Aircrafts in Venezuela Breached the Door to “America’s Backyard”?
Paul Edwards
Make America Grate Again
David Rosnick
The Impact of OPEC on Climate Change
Binoy Kampmark
The Kosovo Blunder: Moving Towards a Standing Army
Andrew Stewart
Shine a Light for Immigration Rights in Providence
December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Vacy Vlanza
The Australian Prime Minister’s Rapture for Jerusalem
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek