Biotech: A Franken-forest fix

Fast-growing genetically modified trees could help save the forestry industry.

Could tinkering with the genes of trees rescue America’s forestry sector? South Carolina’s ArborGen LLC – a biotech joint-venture between U.S. forestry giants International Paper and MeadWestvaco – wants to find out. It hopes to introduce swaths of genetically engineered eucalyptus trees in the southeastern United States. If it succeeds, it could do for forestry what Monsanto did to agriculture.

Eucalyptus is native almost exclusively to Australia, but has been widely cultivated elsewhere, notably Brazil. Owing to the rapid, dense growth and the considerable size of certain eucalyptus species, the hardwood has enjoyed commercial success and now dominates the tropical timber industry. But it typically thrives only in tropical or subtropical climes – frost is its bane. So ArborGen has introduced a genetic trait to help the tree withstand mild freezing conditions as far north as the Carolinas. The company hopes it will prove a substitute for native pine, allowing for higher yields and quicker rotations. Proposed uses include saw timber and biofuels.

Detractors fear eucalyptus may become an invasive species, as it has in South Africa. ArborGen has therefore introduced another trait it hopes will neuter the tree by inhibiting pollen production.

The company’s experimentation has been limited to date, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now considering whether ArborGen should be allowed to perform a much broader “controlled field release” in which cloned plants will be allowed to flower. Either way, the species is unlikely to provide any relief to Canada’s forestry sector – cultivators will have enough trouble keeping it alive in Florida.