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Are genetically engineered trees appropriate for papermaking?

GMOs are plants, animals, bacteria or other living organisms that have been genetically engineered by the insertion of a foreign gene. For centuries, farmers and plant breeders have improved crops and livestock, and to a lesser extent trees, by isolating and selecting for breeding the individuals with the most desirable traits. Everything has hinged on sexual reproduction: only by breeding within the same genus have advances been made. Genetic engineering has changed all this. It has enabled scientists to dispense with sex and cross the genus barrier. - Fast-Wood Plantations . . .

LISTENING STUDY: Most responses state that the use of genetically engineered trees for papermaking must be investigated further before this technology is applied.

The jury is still out. - Frank Locantore, Co-op America

Stora Enso has decided to refrain from any commercial use of controversial genetic engineering techniques on trees or any other organisms. Nevertheless, Stora Enso will continue to take part in basic research in this area in order to keep up to date with developments. This research will not lead to any commercial applications, however. - Stora Enso

Boise believes that the careful use of genetically modified trees should be scientifically investigated. We believe that genetically modified trees may help meet the growing demand for wood and paper products worldwide, may effectively compete in the marketplace, and help sustain the world's forest resources. If new varieties of trees are developed for commercial use, precautions should be taken to assure public confidence. At the same time, any regulations or oversight must be prudent and thoughtful and must not impose unreasonable barriers, unnecessarily impede field trial investigation or interfere with timely operational applications. - Boise Cascade

A World Wildlife Fund scoping study surmises that the main impact of transgenic trees might not be genetic pollution, or the creation of super weeds, but 'the contribution that [genetic engineering] might make to unsustainable land use.' The study suggests that trees engineered for enhanced growth will generally be voracious consumers of water and nutrients, and thus will have the potential to degrade land. However, similar objections could be raised for the non-GMO eucalypt clones, raised through tissue culture, which are delivering astonishingly high yields, most famously in the Aracruz plantations of eastern Brazil. Nevertheless, it is true that genetically improved or genetically modified trees will fulfill their true potential only when the right growing conditions are provided. They must be planted in suitable climates with adequate water and they will nearly always require the use of fertilizers. They may also demand relative freedom from weed competition when young, and this means that herbicides must be used. Current objections to GMOs, like the defense of GMOs, are based on scientific theory. We lack empirical evidence. The jury is out still. - Cossalter 2003

Attackers Fell Finland's Only GM Tree Study: Attackers have torn up 400 genetically modified birch trees in Finland, wrecking the nation's only research into the environmental impact of biotechnology on forests. . . . The trees were chopped down or torn up by their roots at the weekend on the fenced but unguarded 2,000-square-metre site. Some environmental groups fear genetically modified trees might irreversibly "contaminate" food crops and wild species, an issue the study aimed to investigate.
     "The research investigated the possible environmental effects of doing field studies using genetically modified materials. It would have been extremely important to find out about these issues," said research station head Juhani Haggman.
     The 400 birches were part of Finland's only field study on genetically modified trees. The forestry industry hopes genetic modification could cut paper-making costs and improve products by producing trees with suitable traits. "We lack research on how genes work," Haggman said. Researchers on the government-funded Finnish Forest Research Institute (Metla) project were working on the felled trees to collect any data that remained, Haggman said. The study was due for completion at the end of 2005. - Reuters, reported on, June 23, 2004

LISTENING STUDY: Other responses indicate that genetically engineered trees should not be used for papermaking.

No. With some very limited exceptions, there is no real need for genetically engineered trees. Meanwhile, the risks are far too high that pollen and seed from genetically engineered trees will mix with natural forests, and permanently alter those forests. Existing federal, state, and international safeguards for genetically modified organisms are considered highly inadequate by many scientists and conservation organizations. - Daniel Hall, Forest Biodiversity Program Director, American Lands Alliance

The problem with genetically engineered trees is that generally (almost always in the US and Canada) the engineered trees are planted in an area where native forests of the same species are present. This means cross-pollination will likely occur with native forest trees, which is totally unacceptable. If it can be shown that a genetically modified trait cannot be transferred through pollen, then this risk would appear to be eliminated. - Robert R. Bryan, Forest Ecologist, Maine Audubon

Should we oppose genetic "improvements" to trees on public lands? Sierra Club believes that we can't allow the industry to be judged by its hype and that patented genes are not an improvement over nature. We also must avoid only judging what one gene may do, because once hundreds of different fragments of hacked, patented genetic code are allowed access to public lands, the consequences of unintended combinations will be unpredictable. GE trees will also be a danger in other nations, particularly in the underdeveloped world where conditions for effective regulation often don't exist.
     We would also point out that the United States is using twice as much paper per capita as other highly civilized nations (Europe, Japan). Let us not ask genetic engineering to do what could be accomplished by lower-tech means like putting a surcharge on junk mail. - Sierra Club

Bioengineered Trees Stir Debate - Sierra Club, Fearful of Projects Going Awry, Seeks Moratorum:
Scientists are planting genetically engineered trees in dozens of research projects across the country, ignoring the pleas of environmentalists who fear dangerous, unintended consequences.
     "It won't be as widespread as agricultural biotechnology, but it could be much more destructive," said Jim Diamond, chairman of the Sierra Club's genetic engineering committee. "Trees are what's left of our natural environment and home to endangered species." The Sierra Club wants a moratorium on the planting of genetically engineered trees outdoors until the science is better understood. But like a tree falling deep in the forest, its call has gone unheeded.
     The tree researchers say their critics are missing all the ways that science can give Mother Nature a fighting chance against ravages natural and manmade. Biotechnology, they say, may provide just what's needed to help reverse global deforestation and industrial pollution while satisfying increased demands for wood and paper products. . . .
     "There is a lot of value in genetic engineering," said Oregon State University researcher Steven Strauss, who tends to a few thousand engineered trees. Some researchers are infusing trees with genetic material taken from viruses and bacteria that helps them row faster and fatter and yield better wood. Others are splicing mercury-gobbling bacteria genes into trees, enlisting nature to help clean polluted soil. Still others are inserting foreign genes that might reduce the amount of toxic chemicals needed to process trees into paper. . . .
     But could biotech trees cross-breed with their natural brethren and ruin forests' genetic diversity? The Sierra Club fears that, among other ecological consequences. Researchers hope to placate critics by engineering sterility into their designer trees, so their impact on the environment can be contained. But that technology remains elusive.
     Many field trials are backed by paper and timber concerns hoping to design trees that yield more wood and paper. . . . Most explore ways to streamline timber and pulp production, said [ArborGen LLC] Chief Technology Officer Maud Hinchee. She said the company's work could reduce reliance on national forests, with faster growing trees growing on industry plantations. . . . Numerous projects are aimed at growing more wood on less land or making it cheaper and less environmentally harmful to process trees in mills. . . .
     Oregon State's Strauss says the protesters legitimate concerns are virtually identical to those of scientists. - Paul Elias, Associated Press, reported in the Marin Independent Journal, Business section, August 1, 2003

Organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which have long expressed their fears about GMOs in agriculture, have been joined in their campaigns against 'Frankentrees' by groups like the Native Forest Network, which claims that 'native forests ... are threatened worldwide by genetically engineered tree plantations.' - Fast-Wood Plantations . . .

Environmentalists have also suggested that genetic engineering of trees for reduced lignin content and for insect resistance might not prove to be as beneficial as the biotechnologists hope. Take, for example, lignin, which confers physical strength on trees and constitutes part of their defence mechanism against pests. Reducing lignin content could make trees more susceptible to pest attacks, and consequently more pesticides would be required in plantations. - Fast-Wood Plantations . . .

LISTENING STUDY: Some are positive.

Biotechnologists are also looking for genes that code for the enzyme that breaks down lignin. Up to a third of a tree's dry weight is lignin, which must be removed at considerable cost when pulpwood is turned into paper. Plantations of low-lignin trees could help reduce pulping costs. It is claimed that this would also be good for the environment, as lignin removal is an environmentally hazardous process. - Fast-Wood Plantations . . .

LISTENING STUDY: Other responses:

How do you define genetically engineered trees? I think the larger question is more important: can paper be made effectively (quality, cost) from fibers other than that from trees? - Susan Hammond, Executive Director, Silva Forest Foundation

There is no reason to believe that genetically engineered trees would be inappropriate for papermaking. There may be distinct advantages to raising genetically modified trees for making paper that range from greater disease resistance to less need for fertilizers. - International Paper

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