China's Wild Card on Transgenic Tree Front
By Kris Christen American Chemical Society
With commercial plantings of genetically engineered (GE) poplar trees taking root in China, this could be where the grand experiment on the potential of controversial transgenic tree technology plays out, according to forestry researchers. Commercialization seems imminent in South America too, where Brazil is likely to plant transgenic eucalyptus trees for commercial purposes within the next year or so, says Roger Sedjo, director of the Forest Economics and Policy Program at Resources for the Future (RFF), an independent environmental policy think tank.
There is some irony that the current theatre of action is shifting away from the United States, given that UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics indicate that nearly two-thirds of all research activities on genetic modification in forest trees have taken place in that country. However, these have involved only heavily restricted experimental field tests. The one exception is the papaya orchard tree genetically engineered to resist the insect-borne ring spot virus devastating the industry in Hawaii. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has approved this tree for commercial use.
Environmental concerns, similar to those that have roiled the planting of GE agricultural crops, have stymied the commercial development of transgenic trees in North America and Europe (next page). But countries like China are moving forward aggressively because "they actually need this technology," said Alvin Yanchuk, forest genetics program manager for the British Columbia Ministry of Forests in Canada, at a forum sponsored by Duke University's School of Environment and Earth Sciences in November. This "may be the new arena where the rest of the world watches and determines how risky this technology may be for their own publicly owned forests."
Indeed, disastrous floods in the mid-1990s led China to ban all logging in the headwater regions of major rivers, which immediately eliminated a significant portion of their wood supply, explains Al Sample, president of the Pinchot Institute, a nonprofit sustainable forestry think tank. Consequently, China is now a net importer of wood, "which is a big problem as they're just hitting their stride in terms of [economic] growth," he notes. "Without biotechnology applications, which don't necessarily need to include genetic engineering, they're likely to become a significant drain on world resources and stimulate illegal logging throughout Asia, which is already happening."
Sedjo agrees, adding that China has been establishing tree plantations for more than 20 years, some for environmental purposes. China's "Great Green Wall", for example, was launched in 2001 as part of a government-sponsored reforestation project that aims to plant a 2800-mile-long shelterbelt of trees across China's northwest rim, skirting the Gobi Desert.
With insects now devastating wide swaths of the country's remaining forestlands, the Chinese are believed to have planted 300–500 hectares of hybrid poplar trees engineered with the Bt gene to confer resistance, according to Yousry El-Kassaby, a forest geneticist at the University of British Columbia (Canada). He bases this figure on exchanges with Chinese researchers at a November 2003 FAO meeting on forest gene resources. However, there seems to be no official documentation of the planting.
The release of these commercial Bt poplar trees was made possible through China's regulatory system for transgenics, which is somewhat looser than those in North America and Europe. In China, transgenics fall into one of four risk categories: zero, low, medium, or high, Sedjo explains. If researchers find a zero or low risk inherent in a release, then deregulation is almost automatic, although some post-deregulation monitoring can still occur. "Bt poplar was perceived as having no or low risk to the environment and hence was released," he notes.
Europe, on the other hand, will tolerate no risk-if any risk of harm is associated with a release, it's automatically vetoed, Sedjo says. By contrast, in the United States and Canada the notion is that the risk can be no greater than the risk that would be involved with the release of a traditionally modified crop. "If it's not any greater, we're able to accept that amount of risk," Sedjo explains. And once deregulation occurs, no follow-up monitoring is required, although that could change under a regulatory overhaul being conducted by APHIS on GE plants and likely to be proposed this spring, says Michael Wach, an environmental protection specialist with APHIS.
Overall, transgenic tree research promises widespread payoffs in the environmental arena, and the field got a big shot in the arm this fall with the sequencing of the Populus genome, the first tree to be completely sequenced. The sequence data collected by an international team of scientists "will provide researchers with a critical resource to develop faster growing trees, trees that produce more biomass that can be converted to fuels, and trees that can sequester more carbon from the atmosphere or be used to clean up waste sites," said Spencer Abraham, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.
As of 2000, 124 field tests of genetically altered trees had been authorized in the United States, including transgenic spruce, pine, poplar, walnut, citrus, cherry, apple, pear, plum, papaya, and persimmon, Sedjo reports in an RFF paper that was released in November. Other countries undertaking field trials include Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Copyright © 2005 American Chemical Society