With genetic modification (GM) of trees already entering the commercial phase, international cooperation is essential to weigh potential risks, such as plantation failure, against anticipated benefits, such as resistance to diseases, according to a new United Nations global study of biotechnology in forestry released today.
“It is very important that environmental risk assessment studies are conducted with protocols and methodologies agreed upon at national and international levels,” the study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said. “It is also important that the results of such research are made widely available.”
Potential traits of interest for GM trees are increased wood production, improved wood quality and resistance to insects, diseases and herbicides. Production and processing costs of wood or chips could also be reduced, as well as the financial and environmental costs for pulping.
But deploying GM trees is not without risks, FAO warned. Transgene instability, plantation failure, poor wood quality, development of tolerance to the modified trait by insects or disease organisms and the escape of modified genes into natural ecosystems are potential risk factors.
“Genetic modification is not intrinsically good or bad,” FAO forest genetic resources expert Pierre Sigaud said. “A regulatory framework to govern research and application of genetically modified forest trees on a case-by-case basis is essential. The issue goes beyond the country level, since pollen flow and seed dispersal do not take account of national boundaries, and since wood is a global commodity.”
The study noted that research and applications of biotechnology in forestry are advancing rapidly, with the United States, France and Canada being the most active players among developed countries and India and China the most active among developing nations and those in transition.
Overall, GM activities in forestry are taking place in at least 35 countries, with the vast majority apparently restricted to the laboratory with some supporting field trials, FAO said. Only China has reported the commercial release of GM trees – around 1.4 million plants of the populus variety on 300 to 500 hectares in 2002.
Mr. Sigaud said it was not yet possible to reach conclusions on the potential impact of genetically modified forests because of the lack of reliable information. The economic value of forest products in global trade is far less than that of agricultural products, and the economic rationale for employing biotechnology in forestry has not yet been clearly demonstrated, he noted.