New Branch of Science May Build A Better Tree
News Dec 13, 2010
- Derek Abma, The Vancouver Sun, December 11, 2010 The use of biotechnology to create better trees. A U.S.-based organization called the Institute of Forest Biotechnology has recently got the ball rolling on discussions about using technology to create trees that might be more efficient to produce, yield higher-quality lumber, and be more resistant to things like disease, insects and climate change. Photograph by: Handout, Postmedia News The old debate over real versus artificial Christmas trees is one thing, but what about genetically modified trees? A U.S.-based organization called the Institute of Forest Biotechnology has started talks on using technology to create trees that are easier to grow, yield higher-quality lumber, and are more resistant to disease, insects and climate change. In a conference call held this past week, leaders of the institute said genetically modified trees could help offset the effects of increasing demand on forests from a growing population, as well as depletion of forests from climate change and other factors. Creating stronger trees would help the search for lumber and alternative fuel sources, as well as the environment in general, since trees help absorb carbon and provide habitats for wildlife, proponents say. “Biotech trees, in my view, are a very powerful tool,” said Steven Strauss, a professor of forest biotechnology at Oregon State University who is consulting with the institute. “It’s something that we’d like to have available, but it’s something that we’d like to use properly.” The institute is calling for the use of biotech trees to be guided by a gradual process of scientific research and transparent public discussion. It acknowledges there are always risks when humans manipulate a natural process, including unintended effects on other plants and animals. Lori Knowles, a health-law researcher from the University of Alberta, another institute board member, downplayed the risk of industrial interests proceeding with the production of biotech trees ahead of the careful pace her organization is urging. “(Forest biotechnology is) dominated by researchers at this point. . . . There are a few companies involved, but it’s not a massive area of commercial interest at this point,” she said. Knowles said regulations in many countries, including Canada and the United States, limit how quickly biotech-tree development could come into play. Biotech trees are currently being used commercially in China, where more than a million genetically modified poplar trees grow. A variety of virus-resistant papaya trees has also been planted in Hawaii. The Sierra Club of Canada, an environmentalist organization, is taking a cautious approach to the idea of biotech trees. John Bennett, the group’s executive director, said he supports the idea in principle and is in favour of the incremental pace, based on scientific research, being proposed by the institute. However, Bennett said, past examples of genetically modifying plants and animals leave him with concerns. “We think there’s been a tendency to introduce these things before they have actually identified all the potential problems,” he said. The notion of trees created through biotechnology doesn’t seem to be a preoccupation for Canada’s forestry industry yet. A spokeswoman for the Forest Products Association of Canada said it’s not something the industry is involved with. A big reason for that, she said, is that Canada has plenty of trees.