STEVENSON, Wash. - Carefully monitored and controlled research should proceed in order to evaluate the potential benefits, costs and risks of forest biotechnology, experts concluded this week at an international conference on this evolving and controversial science.

Genetic engineering of trees in forest plantations holds the promise of increased productivity, reduced pressure on natural forests, increased carbon sequestration and other social and environmental benefits, conference participants said. But there are valid concerns about the ecological role of forest plantations and gene transfer to non-target plant species, and the only way to really understand the risks and benefits is for properly regulated research to be expanded, they said.

"We have to feed, clothe and house the people of the world while protecting the environment," said Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, a co-organizer of the event along with the University of Washington. "To meet this challenge we need to balance a legitimate concern for precaution with a bias for boldness. Studies suggest that within 10 years about 40 percent of the world's wood supply may come from intensively managed forest plantations. It remains to be seen if genetically modified trees need to be a part of those plantations."

"In the field of forest biotechnology we're hearing too many arguments without very much data," Salwasser said. "We need experiments and long-term research to produce good scientific findings that can then help guide decisions made through an open social and political process."

Salwasser was one of dozens of experts from around the world who spoke at this conference, which included university researchers, government regulators, private industry, ethicists, ecologists, and representatives of environmental activist groups.

Some environmental spokespersons at the meeting raised what they believe are serious concerns.

"Trees live a long time, are relatively undomesticated, disperse their seed and pollen widely, and it's very difficult to gauge ecological impacts," said Sue Mayer, an executive director of GeneWatch and a member of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission in the United Kingdom. "The current problems with agricultural biotechnology had their root in the late 1980s as a result of inadequate risk assessment and use of too many flawed assumptions. There was a fracturing of trust."

Biotechnology critics at the meeting raised questions about the need for engineered trees, inadequate regulations, gene flow to other species, potential for ecological damage and ethical concerns.

Other researchers said that continued and even expanded research is the only way to answer the many questions in this area and ensure public confidence if forest biotechnology is used in the future.

"I think it's possible to start the research and educational process without making a wholesale endorsement of biotechnology," said Steven Strauss, a professor of forest science at OSU and a leading researcher in this field. "I would urge against making a global 'yes or no' decision about all genetically modified organisms. What we need to do is get away from the conjecture, get on with carefully planned studies and report the results to the public. We need to get past the polarization and develop trust."

Industry representatives at the meeting said that forest biotechnology is largely undeveloped compared to its counterparts in agriculture or biomedicine, but that it holds great promise to develop trees that grow faster or can more economically be grown in large plantations, much like an agricultural crop. In the final analysis actual use of this technology will be driven by economic return, environmental performance, and social and market acceptance, they said.

The benefits of biotechnology are not confined to faster tree growth, conference participants noted. The use of genetically modified trees compared to conventional forest plantations, they said, could also include less use of chemicals, drought resistance, protection of soil health, an increase in insect biodiversity, significantly less pressure to use native forests for production of wood or fiber and more land freed up for other uses such as wilderness or watershed protection.

Several participants also suggested that a major step forward might be formation of a federally funded commission to study ethical, legal and social issues in forest biotechnology.

Other conclusions and observations of meeting participants included:

  • More work needs to be done to establish proper goals and methods for risk assessment.
  • The use of forest plantations raises concerns about their ecological role and impact on biodiversity that are separate from, and often much greater than, concerns about their use of genetic engineering.
  • Careful monitoring and research needs to be done in the area of gene flow to non-target species, especially when inserting genes that might possibly be favored by natural selection processes. 
  • Research into tree genetics may uncover basic knowledge about how organisms and ecosystems work that is unanticipated and unconnected with the current perception of risks and benefits.
  • The analogy of genetically modified trees to "invasive species" is not fair or accurate, because genetic alterations usually affect only a single or limited number of genes, and pose far smaller risks than introducing a non-native plant species that has never before existed in that ecosystem. 
  • Creation of sterility in genetically modified trees may hold the key to their safe and publicly accepted use in a natural environment.
  • Genetic engineering of trees holds the potential to help rescue some declining tree species that are clearly at risk, such as the American chestnut.
  • The use of genetically modified trees might actually increase the interest in and monitoring of conventional genetic cross-breeding that has been done with trees and plants for hundreds of years.

"The potential for forest biotechnology is huge," Strauss said. "We need the right kind of research and the proper regulatory mechanisms. The more we know, the better we should be able to control this whole process and decide where we, as a society, want to go with it."