Researchers: Genetic "extremism" overstates risks


CORVALLIS - Amid increasing acts of vandalism and protests against the use of genetic engineering in forestry, a group of scientists said this month in a professional journal that scare tactics used by environmental extremists must yield to a more careful analysis of the issues based upon science.

The safe and careful application of biotechnology to forestry, they said, holds the potential for trees that grow faster, reduce the burdens placed on native forests, may lessen the use of some chemicals, and can help to meet the increasing demands for wood pulp, building materials and renewable energy. Their commentary, a statement that was ratified by 99 percent of the voters from a recent meeting of International Union of Forestry Research Organizations, was published in the December issue of Nature Biotechnology.

"There is overwhelming consensus among scientists that biotechnology can be used safely and should move forward," said Steven Strauss, a professor of forest science at Oregon State University and co-author of the paper.

"As with any new technology, there are some concerns that we should deal with, both scientific and ethical," Strauss said. "But they are not major problems, and both the scientific community and industries have been working to address them for a number of years."

By contrast, Strauss said, some environmental groups have suggested that genetic engineering, in forestry and elsewhere, is rife with unknowable risks and looming ecological catastrophe.

The World Wide Fund for Nature, for instance, in November called for governments around the world to enact a moratorium on the commercial use of genetic engineering in forestry. And just last week, vandals - making reference to "Frankentrees" in one communiqué - caused some damage to laboratories in Washington state doing gene research on trees.

"Some opponents of this science, based on little or no scientific evidence or knowledge, have elevated gene research to Frankenstein proportions," Strauss said. "They suggest the sky is falling and do their best to scare and upset people. What we have to do in this debate is separate real risks from pseudo-risks and do the scientific research which can clearly move us forward in a safe, progressive manner." The scientists suggested in their position statement that field trials are a critical part of the research needed to establish the value and safety of the technology, and can be conducted responsibly.

This is in marked contrast to the suggestion from the World Wide Fund for Nature that field trials of genetically engineered trees are inherently dangerous and should be banned.

"This group made the claim that the many field trials that have been conducted are environmental releases, yet do not document a single release into the environment or a problem that has resulted anywhere in the world," Strauss said. "Nearly all the field trials of trees are destroyed before they ever flower and removed from the test site once the study is completed."

The full text of the position statement by Strauss and other scientists can be found on the web at www.fsl.orst.edu/tgerc/iufro_pos-statm.htm. Among the points of the Nature Biotechnology article:


  • The world demand for renewable energy, fiber and building materials is growing rapidly, with fiber consumption between 1970 and 1994 going up 50 per cent in the developed world and 300 percent in developing nations.


  • One of the most promising approaches to meet those needs is plantation forestry, in which trees are grown much like agricultural crops in intensive, short-rotation plantations, and genetic engineering is used to create trees that optimize the yield and viability of those plantations. It is only in these places, which occupy a tiny proportion of the world's forests, where genetic engineering will be used for the foreseeable future.


  • Genetic engineering in forestry can create valuable changes in trees, such as faster growth, resistance to insects or benign herbicides, and controlled flowering to avoid releases of the new genes into the environment via pollen and seeds.


  • Because they result from insertion of specific, intensively studied genes, most of the risks from this genetic manipulation can be carefully studied, isolated and controlled so they can be anticipated in advance and reasonable decisions made about commercial application.


  • Overly precautionary restrictions can preclude scientific progress and the environmental benefits it may provide. Regulations that would make field trials much more onerous and costly to conduct would preclude most of the research needed to assess safety and benefits.


  • Consideration of risks from genetically modified trees should be compared to known risks from conventional forestry techniques, such as plantation establishment and conventional breeding, and evaluated in light of the intense social pressures on natural forests to meet growing world demands for wood.

"A point worth repeating is that genetic engineering just uses a different branch of science, and is not inherently any more risky than the work that has been done in conventional plant breeding for hundreds of years," Strauss said. "When breeders attempt to introduce new traits via breeding, or attempt to develop a crop for a new environment, there are many bumps along the road as the varieties and technology are refined. This is very similar to the early stages of genetic engineering."

"The key is not whether to use genetic engineering, but how you monitor and manage it." It's also worth noting, Strauss said, that the comparatively minor genetic tinkering done with existing trees doesn't even approach the concerns raised by invading species of whole organisms, such as the Dutch Elm Disease that ravaged forests across America when brought over from Europe.

"The movement of single genes, or small groups of genes, is vastly less risky than the movement of exotic organisms, where tens of thousands of highly co-adapted genes are placed into new environments where they can further evolve and take over major ecological niches," Strauss said.

Research on the safe use of genetic engineering is underway at OSU and many other universities and private industries, Strauss said, including both laboratory and field studies. The first products of gene research in agriculture are already on grocery store shelves, and new applications of this science in forestry will be ready for commercial use once some additional research is completed and social and regulatory hurdles can be overcome, he said.