Can GMO trees save our forests?

Biotech experts weigh the environmental and social consequences of planting genetically modified pines and poplars

Published September 7, 2013 3:30PM (EDT)

photo illustration Lilli Keinaenen
photo illustration Lilli Keinaenen

This originally appeared on Earth Island Journal.

In late May, forest biologists, geneticists, and forestry industry officials from across the world gathered at the Marriott Renaissance Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina to discuss ongoing research in tree genetics. One of the key sessions at the weeklong “Tree Biotechnology 2013 Conference” dealt with the “different aspects of the use of transgenics, including gains in productivity, gene flow, and societal acceptance.” The last point, it turned out, would be the attendees’ biggest hurdle.

As convention participants sat in the four-star hotel’s conference rooms discussing how genetically engineered (GE) trees could meet the growing demand for “sustainable, renewable sources of biomass, in the face of climate change,” several hundred demonstrators gathered on the streets outside in one of the largest protests ever organized against genetically engineered trees. Anne Petermann, coordinator of the “Campaign to STOP GE Trees,” says their message to the tree biotech industry and its investors was simple: Expect resistance.

The protestors had converged in Asheville for their own weeklong “counter-conference.” Their key intention was to highlight concerns over the United States government’s pending approval of a genetically modified eucalyptus tree. The proposal, by the South Carolina-based company ArborGen, is currently being considered by the US Department of Agriculture. If approved, it would be the first time a transgenic tree is authorized for commercial production in the country.

While the debate over GE plants (or genetically modified organisms, as they are usually called) has been focused on the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of transgenic food crops and fish, in the past decade the agricultural biotech industry has been gradually venturing into another frontier – forestry.

Genetically modified strains of trees like eucalyptus, pines, poplars, and fruit trees are being tested in hundreds of trial plots across the world, including the United States. Although the idea of transgenic trees isn’t exactly new (scientists have been testing different versions of GE trees since the 1980s), few have ever made it to market. The two notable exceptions are the ringspot virus-resistant GE papaya trees grown commercially in Hawai‘i and more than one million insect-resistant poplar trees that were planted in northern China in the early 2000s – a large-scale commercial experiment of which few records were kept.

The impetus to create different types of transgenic trees that can grow faster, have more biomass, resist pests and herbicides, and have low lignin – a chemical compound that promotes rigidity – is largely driven by the commercial forestry industry that grows trees for timber, paper, fiber, and, lately, as a raw material for bioenergy. A recent boom in biofuel energy has spurred demand for trees that can feed new wood-pellet power plants, biomass incinerators, and cellulosic biofuel plants.

So the plantation industry, as ArborGen says in a promotional video, wants “a tree that can do more” and “work harder.” GE trees, supporters of the technology argue, can produce more wood per acre, faster, and can therefore relieve the pressure on the world’s natural forests, mitigate global warming, and, at the same time, fuel economic development. Boosters also say the technology could help bring iconic species like the American chestnut back from the brink of extinction.

The US South – one of the largest pulp and paper-producing regions in the world, accounting for about 15 percent of the paper products produced worldwide – has become one the key testing grounds for these new kinds of trees. Since 2010 ArborGen has been field-testing its genetically engineered freeze-tolerant eucalyptus on 28 open-air sites across seven southern states, from Florida to South Carolina. “We selected eucalyptus as it has a high commercial and environmental value in terms of increased per acre productivity to support the growing global demand for sustainable wood, fiber, and energy supplies,” ArborGen spokesperson Cathy Quinn wrote to me in an email.

Modifying trees, which are integral parts of wild ecosystems, is a knotty issue.

Tree plantations in the South are mostly made up of native pine trees that are typically harvested after they are 20- to 30-years-old. Previous efforts to establish the fast-growing, non-native eucalyptus in the region never took off because the tree can’t survive freezing temperatures. ArborGen’s GE eucalyptus was developed in New Zealand (where it is illegal to grow GE plants commercially) by splicing a fast-growing, high-fiber eucalyptus variety with a freeze-tolerant plant gene. It can survive in temperatures as low as 19 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The GE tree, the company says, will expand the geographical scope of the eucalyptus in the US from 15 million to 56 million acres.

ArborGen – which is partly owned by the New Zealand-based timber corporation, Rubicon – hopes that by the time its quarter-million trial trees reach harvesting age, sometime around 2020, the USDA will have deregulated its GE tree strain, allowing the company to sell the trees.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is preparing an environmental impact statement to evaluate the risks of commercial GE eucalyptus plantations. APHIS spokesperson Andre Bell says the agency “can’t speculate on a timetable of completion” since “each environmental review process is unique unto its own.” Though it bears mention that last year the USDA announced a plan to halve the review time for most new genetically engineered products, from the current average of three years.

Meanwhile, a similar request by Israeli biotech firm FuturaGene to deregulate a transgenic eucalyptus variety engineered to grow 40 percent faster is pending in Brazil. FuturaGene is a fully-owned subsidiary of the Brazilian timber giant Suzano, which along with its partners in China, Thailand, and South Africa owns nearly half of the world’s eucalyptus plantations. “Our gene increases biomass and drastically reduces input costs, which means, from a sustainability perspective, you can grow more in a smaller area,” says Mike May, FuturaGene’s vice president of public affairs. The technology to make eucalyptus trees grow faster could be adapted for other tree varieties, he says. Given advances in nano-biotech, May believes cellulose from these trees, which is basically a form of carbon, could eventually replace the petrochemical industry.

The way proponents of transgenic trees see it, GE trees could be a panacea for some of our world’s most pressing environmental ills. But critics view these modified organisms as a false solution rife with known and unforeseeable risks that will only accelerate the conversion of native forests to monoculture plantations.

“What we have seen with tree plantations is that they are destructive,” says George Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety, an environmental group working for better oversight of transgenic crops and trees in the US. “They cause more intensive herbicide use, they cause loss of topsoil, they have not relieved the pressure on native forests. Instead, they have increased it by clearing more land to make more plantations. That’s what these GE trees are going to be used to do – to further ingrain the tree plantation model that we know is an unsustainable one.”

Kimbrell’s group – along with the Sierra ClubCenter for Biological DiversityDogwood Alliance, and the Global Justice Ecology Project – unsuccessfully sued the USDA and ArborGen in 2010 to stop the GE eucalyptus field trials, arguing that the agency hadn’t properly assessed the environmental impacts. “We think a commercial approval would be an even greater danger,” Kimbrell says.

Some of the concerns about GE trees echo those expressed about GE field crops: for example, the trees’ impact on soil and biodiversity, potential cross pollination with native trees, and the possibility that some GE tree varieties might turn invasive. (This is a special concern with eucalyptus because several types of eucalyptus have turned invasive in some places like California, Bangladesh, and South Africa, where they suck up enormous amounts of water, alter local soil chemistry, are significant fire hazards, and disrupt symbiotic relationships among species that have co-evolved over thousands of years.)

For some, a greater worry is the fact that trees intrinsically differ from agricultural plants: They live much longer and are integral parts of complex ecosystems – forests. And that, those opposed to GE trees say, makes the issue of genetically engineered trees far more knotty.

“The thing that’s different about forest trees, versus say corn or soybeans, is that forest trees are wild organisms. They are the major structural and ecological components of wild forests,” says Martha Crouch, a plant geneticist who counsels law firms and nonprofits on biotech and agriculture issues. “With trees, there are all kinds of questions that will have to be looked at carefully because trees have very long lives.… [With GE trees] you might be altering traits that may affect ecological relationships for hundreds of years.”

Crouch says there has been very little research so far into how genetic engineering might change a tree over time, let alone into its impact on ecosystems. “What kinds of birds and animals and insects will be able to use the trees?” she asks. “Will [GE trees] cause any toxicity issues in the soil? If the trees have less lignin will they fall over easily in a storm? Who’s going to be responsible for them 50 or 60 years from now? Will the companies that produced the trees still be in business? Those are the kind of questions that need to be answered.” She says since most of these questions haven’t yet been answered, the possibility of commercial GE tree plantations is of global concern.

photo of a protest, in the foreground, a man in a suit watches

Demonstrators across from the patio of where the Tree Biotech conference was held. A hotel security guard is in the foreground. photo: Langelle Photography.

Though there’s little chance a GE eucalyptus tree will be able to hybridize with a native species – the Australian tree is not native to most of the places where it’s grown – the question of crossbreeding becomes much more important with species like poplar or pines. Pollen or seed dispersal from the field trials, even if closely monitored, is not implausible.

A 2008 study by the Federation of German Scientists notes that forest trees produce large quantities of pollen and seed that can travel vast distances. “Long-distance dispersal of seed from conifers has been reported over distances as far as 600 to 1,200 kilometers,” the report says, adding that “under rare conditions” pine and spruce pollen have travelled up to 3,000 km. Then there’s dispersal by birds, squirrels, bats, and other animals. Even if GE trees are bred to be sterile – as many varieties being developed are – the report notes that reproduction can still happen since trees can also reproduce vegetatively through roots, or from broken branches, or shoots inadvertently transported by wind, water, animals, and humans.

The challenges of controlling cross-pollination or “plant escape” are evident in the recent case of an Oregon farmer who discovered a GE wheat variety growing in his field this spring. The crop, which can tolerate the herbicide glyphosate, has never been grown commercially in the US. But it was field-tested by agribusiness giant Monsanto in 16 states, including Oregon, eight years ago. The USDA is still investigating the incident. “If other plantations are any indication, some will be abandoned and some GE trees will become part of the landscape even though that wasn’t the original intention,” Crouch says.

There is already evidence that GE trees have randomly crossbred with native trees. In 2004, the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science found genes from the genetically engineered insect-resistant poplars that were planted commercially in Xinjiang appearing in natural poplar varieties. More recently, researchers have found pollen from GE papaya in backyard and organic papaya trees in Thailand and Hawai‘i. The environmental impacts of these crossovers aren’t clear yet, but there has been some economic fallout in the case of food crops. Several nations placed temporary bans on imports of wheat and papaya coming from the US and Thailand. Incidents like these, Kimbrell says, should serve as a cautionary tale.

Supporters of GE trees admit the need for prudence, but say the concerns about transgenic trees are overblown and opposition to the technology is mostly ideological, even anti-science.

“A lot of people think that forests should be kept wild as they are repositories of nature,” says Steven Strauss, a forest biotechnologist at Oregon State University who has worked as a consultant for ArborGen. “It’s a philosophical thing. They don’t want what they call ‘monocultures.’ They think it’s not right to manipulate forests like this, which I fundamentally disagree with as an environmentalist.”

Strauss, who has a grant from the USDA to study the mitigation of social and ecological risks of GE poplar trees, says there’s nothing wrong with having some production systems that have been altered. “On a landscape basis, and this is what we do in forestry, we have reserves and forest industries, we have intensification in some places and have really managing- for-nature in other places, and that seems to be the most efficient way to get both,” he says. Genetic engineering, he says, is just another tool used by agriculturalists, like crossbreeding or inbreeding, to improve production systems. GE simply addresses all the issues that regular selective breeding could eventually resolve, he insists. It just does so much faster.

“The question of whether [GE trees are] ecologically a good or bad idea would probably require five or ten years of cultivation at a reasonable scale to know,” Strauss says. “And then if it turns out to be difficult, you probably are in a good position to actually cut it all down and destroy it.… So I’m personally comfortable with growing [GE trees on a commercial scale] for now. I might have a different opinion in 10 years, assuming it goes forward at all. It’s unclear that it will, given these things are so controversial.”

GE trees do raise some special concerns, “simply because they are much more long lived than other transgenes,” says Paul Thompson, Kellogg Chair in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University. But, he says, part of the opposition to it has to do with people’s unfamiliarity with the technology. “People who have been involved in plant breeding know that there are ways of forcing plants to make spontaneous genetic modifications under stress, and that involves exposing plants to radiation or high doses of chemicals. This kind of ‘mutation breeding’ has been going on for a long time. So there’s a sense among the scientific community that, given what’s been going on, GE is actually simpler.”

The reason genetic engineering becomes an ethical issue, Thompson says, is because of “the often religious associations” connected to the idea of genes. “There is the idea that genes, and genetics in general, is a sacred area, particularly when you start to manipulate them for commercial purposes, which I think is true in the case of GE trees. There would be less opposition if the technology was being used for a clearly altruistic purpose.”

Strauss knows about the “almost religious” opposition to GE from his own experience. In 2001, a group of anti-GE Oregon State University students and alumni destroyed more than 1,200 GE poplar and cottonwood trees being grown at the university’s test sites. “A lot of it has to do with organized resistance and what I would consider to be scientifically horrendous information being put out there,” he says. “Some groups are anti-GMO everything and I think that’s ethically irresponsible, for forestry and for agriculture.”

The Oregon scientist may have a point. There is a lot of dubious science out there about genetic engineering – but it’s a two-way street. For example, Monsanto for years promoted a now debunked study that bolstered the company’s claim that weeds wouldn’t develop resistance to its weedicide, Roundup, as long as farmers used the herbicide in recommended doses regularly.

As the journal Nature pointed out in a May special issue on GMOs: “People are positively swimming in information about GM technologies. Much of it is wrong – on both sides of the debate. But a lot of this incorrect information is sophisticated, backed by legitimate-sounding research and written with certitude.”

It doesn’t help either faction that for-profit biotech companies, which fund most of the research into transgenics, usually control the research rights and patents. “So if you’re a scientist and you want to research GE eucalyptus trees and their impacts on the environment, you need ArborGen’s permission,” Kimbrell says. “And if you are allowed to research it, they can deny you the right to publish, or redact your findings in some form.” What this means, he says, is that independent scientists can’t adequately assess the impact of these technologies when applied to specific cases. “I get a lot of questions where people say, ‘well if these substances are harmful where is your smoking gun of scientific evidence,’” Kimbrell says.

Thompson agrees: “I’m not really opposed to the technology as such, but the way the biotech industry has been commercialized has certainly created a lot of problems.”

There is no neat conclusion to this story. In some ways, it’s still too early to pass a verdict on GE trees. There are simply too many unknowns. It’s doubtful, however, that transgenic trees by themselves can address the drivers of deforestation. As Crouch says: “ArborGen’s motto is ‘more wood less land,’ but that’s not how economics works. It’s not as if there’s a certain, finite amount of wood that is needed and people will quit growing more once they have that much wood.”

Maureen Nandini Mitra is managing editor of Earth Island Journal.

By Maureen Nandini Mitra

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Biology Biotechnology Earth Island Journal Forests Genetically Modified Genetics Trees