[permaculture] Genetically Modified Forest Planned for U.S. Southeast
qazingulaza at gmail.com
Fri Feb 5 09:04:21 EST 2010
Genetically Modified Forest Planned for U.S. Southeast
International Paper and MeadWestvaco are planning to transform
plantation forests of the southeastern U.S. by replacing native pine
with genetically engineered eucalyptus
By Paul Voosen
PINE GONE: Native pine trees could be sent to pasture in place of
eucalyptus, pictured here.
e-mail print comment
Genetic engineering is coming to the forests.
While the practice of splicing foreign DNA into food crops has become
common in corn and soy, few companies or researchers have dared to
apply genetic engineering to plants that provide an essential strut of
the U.S. economy, trees.
But that will soon change. Two industry giants, International Paper
Co. and MeadWestvaco Corp., are planning to transform plantation
forests of the southeastern United States by replacing native pine
with genetically engineered eucalyptus, a rapidly growing Australian
tree that in its conventional strains now dominates the tropical
The companies' push into genetically modified trees, led by their
joint biotech venture, ArborGen LLC, looks to overcome several hurdles
for the first time. Most prominently, they are banking on a
controversial gene splice that restricts trees' ability to reproduce,
meant to allay fears of bioengineered eucalyptus turning invasive and
overtaking native forests.
If such a fertility control technology -- which has come under fire in
farming for fear seed firms will exploit it -- is proven effective, it
could open the door to many varieties of wild plants, including weedy
grasses, to be genetically engineered for use in energy applications
like biomass and next-generation biofuels without fear of
The use of such perennial plants -- so named because, unlike annual
farm crops, they live and grow for many years -- has long interested
business and government, including the Energy Department, which has
collaborated with ArborGen. The plants, which include many grasses
targeted for cellulosic ethanol, can be harvested when needed and,
given their hardiness, grow on marginal land.
Yet many questions remain about the effectiveness of the fertility
system used by ArborGen, which, according to leading scientists, has
never been rigorously studied in multiyear trials to prove that it can
effectively control plants' spread. More research must be conducted
before such systems are relied upon to restrict pollen and seed
spread, they say.
Despite these calls, ArborGen has been seeking government deregulation
of its eucalyptus, which is primarily engineered to resist freezing
temperatures, since 2008. If successful, ArborGen would likely
revolutionize the timber industry and the Southern landscape by
becoming the first company to roll out bioengineered trees on a
massive scale, observers say.
In its rosiest scenarios, growers using ArborGen's presumably
expensive seeds would see huge gains in productivity and become the
preferred tree stock for a new generation of bioenergy refineries. The
South would become the new Appalachia; timber would serve as its coal.
Inklings of such progress have already arisen, including recent word
that the German utility RWE AG would build the world's largest
wood-pellet plant in Georgia to supplement its coal habits.
By adopting eucalyptus as a tree stock, the United States would simply
be catching up with countries like Brazil, which has leveraged vast
tree plantations in recent decades to pivot from a net wood importer
to an exporter. While the South saw a rise in pine plantations during
this time, pine cannot compete with eucalyptus for sheer growth rate,
the company says.
"The United States is behind the game on this," said Les Pearson,
ArborGen's director of regulatory affairs. "Lots of countries around
the world have been growing eucalyptus for many decades."
Indeed, primarily because of competition from South America, demand
for traditional American tree pulp has gone slack. This sagging
industry could allow up to 10 million acres in the Southeast to be
repurposed for fast-growing eucalyptuses, according to corporate
But it still remains unclear if the nascent bioenergy industry will be
enough to make up for demand lost to Brazilian plantations, said
Curtis Seltzer, a timber consultant who has studied ArborGen and calls
its trees a "game changer."
"It's not clear to me that biomass will pick up the slack for the
traditional markets [as they] ebb," Seltzer said. "But it could."
More information about the permaculture