Out on a Limb

Genetically engineered trees take root

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Image by Flickr user: sebilden / Creative Commons

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“Only God can make a tree,” the old poem proclaims, but scientists are working to disprove that quaint notion. Timber and paper companies and their researchers are quietly, doggedly working to genetically engineer trees with traits that boost the bottom line: faster growth and stronger insect resistance, for instance. But they know that one of the biggest barriers to their biotech dreams may not be in the lab or the field but in the arena of public opinion.

Internationally, the issue already has triggered opposition. In April, delegates to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Curitiba, Brazil, passed a formal declaration urging caution on genetically engineered (GE) trees. Environmental advocates warn that engineered traits from GE trees could taint other forests, just as GE crops have contaminated other farm fields.

Industry executives, memories fresh with “Frankenfoods” protests and agriculture trade barriers, must shudder when they hear such talk. At a 2004 North American timber industry biotech conference with the upbeat title “New Century, New Trees,” a consistent theme was the need to avoid battles like those over genetically engineered crops. One presenter predicted that “genetic engineering technology will become a lightning rod for controversy, much like the spotted owl did 15 years ago.” Another emphasized the need to obtain a “social license” for GE trees.

Such a license may be hard to get, if events in Europe are any indication. In 2004 activists destroyed 400 GE birch trees in Finland, and public opinion pressured paper giant Stora Enso, among other firms, to curtail introduction of the GE trees. The European Union requires that GE trees be proven to present zero social or environmental risks before they’re introduced outdoors.

That’s a tougher standard than in the U.S., where regulators tolerate “low-risk” GE tree biotechnology. The Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, must approve any outdoor introduction of GE trees, from initial field trials to full-scale “deregulation” allowing commercial growing and marketing.

So far, only one tree, a Hawaiian papaya, has cleared all hurdles to achieve deregulated status. But the tree, which was genetically engineered to resist the ringspot virus that decimated Hawaii’s papaya industry, hasn’t exactly been a success story.

The Environment News Service (Sept. 10, 2004) reports that genes from the virus-resistant tree, introduced in 1998, have spread to organic farms and wild papaya stands. Farmers who grow organic papayas say they’ve lost access to foreign markets that are tough on GE imports and have incurred higher testing costs, while environmental advocates and backyard growers worry that traditional papayas may be obliterated. To boot, the Honolulu Advertiser (March 19, 2006) reports that genetically engineered fruit commands a lower price, and that Hawaiian papaya production has tumbled anyway since 2002 due to myriad forces.

Meanwhile, APHIS has approved hundreds of open-air field trials of GE trees. Forest industry advocates and environmentalists alike are watching keenly as APHIS conducts a “comprehensive update” of its regulations to keep up with the fast-moving technology.

In countries with looser environmental controls, more GE trees have been planted, but not without problems and controversy. China has planted more than a million GE poplars in an attempt to stop flash floods and keep deserts from spreading, according to the New Scientist (Sept. 18, 2004). But scientists have complained about the lack of regulatory oversight, and experiments have shown that genes from the modified trees have turned up in nearby natural poplars.

Just how bad could genetically engineered trees be? According to worst-case scenarios predicted by foes such as the Vermont-based Stop GE Trees Campaign, they could reduce many timberlands to monoculture tree plantations, “silent forests” largely devoid of other plant and animal life.

Such dire predictions aren’t pure speculation: One of the hottest research areas involves engineering trees that tolerate the herbicide Roundup, so foresters can kill off competing undergrowth with the chemical and reduce a forest ecosystem to little more than a tree farm. In the United States, where 72 percent of productive forestland is privately owned, any negative effects of GE trees could have a big impact on woodlands.

Some scientists point out that GE tree research can have a forest-friendly upside and may provide solutions to intractable maladies such as American chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease. And even the Sierra Club notes in its position statement on GE trees that not every application of GE is bad. But the powerhouse environmental group also takes a firm stand, opposing any outdoor release of genetic technologies “because the genes are free—as free as pollen on the wind—to invade nature, and because once this has happened they can’t be recalled.”

That may be a hard argument for foresters to cut down.