CORVALLIS - Leading experts from around the world will convene in the Pacific Northwest July 22-27 for conferences that will tackle some of the most controversial issues relating to the science, ecology and ethics of forest biotechnology.
Their goal: to try developing a scientific plan of action for the future.
Both proponents and critics of this emerging science will attend, including biotechnology researchers from industry and academia, policy experts, economists, ethicists, agency regulators, and representatives of environmental groups.
"The ability to genetically modify forest trees is in its infancy," said Steven Strauss, a professor of forest science at Oregon State University, international expert in the use of biotechnology in forestry, and a co-organizer of these meetings with H.D. "Toby" Bradshaw at the University of Washington.
"Although most applications are many years in the future, some modified trees for very specific applications could move out of our laboratories and test plots within the decade," Strauss said. "Our forests have many uses and functions of great importance, and because of that any genetic changes in trees are a significant ecological and societal concern we should address."
Symposium organizers say they hope to achieve a working consensus about the specific benefits, risks, ethics and ecology of the use of genetic engineering in forestry, which will allow the field to move past generalities and towards a reasonable, scientific action plan that people can understand and accept.
The meetings of professionals in this field will be held at the Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Wash., in the Columbia River gorge. Work will begin with an "International Symposium on Ecological and Societal Aspects of Transgenic Forest Plantations." That symposium will be a satellite meeting held concurrently with the conference, "Tree Biotechnology in the Next Millennium," sponsored by the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations, which will cover new scientific developments.
In working breakout sessions in the ecological symposium, experts will address and try to answer some of the more difficult and controversial concerns in this field of study. Such questions include:
- Can genetically modified plantation forests play a role in sustainable wood and fiber production?
- Is it ethical to use genetic modification for these purposes?
- What are the most urgent research needs to address scientific and public concerns?
- Should there be a moratorium on field or laboratory research?
- Are regulations for research and deployment adequate, excessive or in need of fundamental redesign?
- · Is it fair or misleading to compare genetically modified trees to an invading or exotic species?
- Do trees with genetic modification pose greater concerns than those produced during conventional breeding?
- Would a regulatory system that includes more diverse public input on non-technical issues improve public acceptance of this science, or just increase political gridlock?
Following the meetings, the conference organizers plan to compile the conclusions of the discussions and scientific presentations and make them available publicly, and internationally via the Internet.
Speakers at the meetings include some of the most recognized and prominent experts working in forestry, social science and biotechnology. They include Paul Risser, president of OSU and an ecologist who has been active in resolving national and international policy issues; keynote speaker Kristiina Vogt, dean of the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington and an expert on forest ecology and management; and Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry at OSU and a leader in moving the U.S. Forest Service towards ecologically-based forest management systems.
Other participants will be from the fields of global policy, business, bioethics, government and regulation, forest science, and ecology. They include:
- Roger Sedjo, resource economist with Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C., and an expert on the potential contributions of forest biotechnology;
- Don Doering, senior staff of the World Resources Institute, and an expert on environmental and development policy;
- Paul Thompson, a professor at Purdue University and expert on the ethics of biotechnology;
- Sue Mayer, executive director of GeneWatch, a group based in the United Kingdom that is concerned with the ethics and risks of genetic engineering;
- Rowland Burdon, science fellow at the New Zealand Forestry Research Institute and expert on the risk comparison of transgenic forest plantations to those of conventional breeding;
- Faith Campbell, head of the invasive species program at the American Lands Alliance and expert on the policy challenges created by use of genetic engineering in forestry.
Information about registration, fees, and attendance at these meetings can be obtained by calling 541-737-2329, or online.