Contact: DJ Nordquist/Pew Initiative on Food and BiotechnologyOffice: 202-347-9132 (direct)202-347-9044 ext 246
Forestry Leaders Identify Risks and Benefits of Developing Genetically Engineered Trees, Consider Broader Historical and Sociological Issues
Questions Raised: Are GE forests different than crops? Are genetically engineered trees inevitable? How will consumers react? Does forest biotechnology pose unique regulatory issues?
Washington, D.C. (March 25, 2002) -- Many in the forestry industry, as well as academic researchers, are interested in genetically engineering trees but are proceeding cautiously as they evaluate the technology's environmental consequences and gauge how consumers will react to products made from genetically modified trees, according to some of the nation's top forestry experts who spoke at a conference sponsored by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, the Society of American Foresters and the Ecological Society of America.
Representatives from industry, academia, and environmental groups gathered in December to ask critical questions such as whether the benefits of developing genetically engineered trees outweigh any potential environmental risks, how broader historical and sociological factors play into the debate, whether current forestry practices will meet or exceed market demand for wood and paper products, and whether there should be changes in the regulatory process specific to the introduction of genetically engineered trees. The proceedings of the conference, "Biotech Branches Out: A Look at the Opportunities and Impacts of Forest Biotechnology," were released today by the three co-sponsoring organizations.
"Forestry researchers are working on ways to create trees to resist pests, to make it easier to process pulp and paper products, and to assist in the restoration of endangered tree species," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Initiative. "Some are looking to biotechnology to meet these goals. For others, however, questions about the potential ecological risks of introducing genetically engineered trees into the environment have tempered the urge to proceed. For these reasons, we thought it was important to create a constructive dialogue among a wide variety of interests and representatives from various scientific disciplines within the forest community -- to share opinions, explore differences and identify areas for a future dialogue on these issues."
The proceedings from "Biotech Branches Out" capture the many views that emerged during the meeting in Atlanta when more than 100 scientists, environmentalists, foresters (representing both the public and private sector), industry representatives, lawyers, government regulatory officials and members of various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) assembled to discuss the issues surrounding forest biotechnology. In addition to examining the potential benefits and risks associated with genetically engineered trees, conference attendees also examined the current laws and regulatory practices that apply to the technology. Some of the key points that emerged from the conference included:
* Evaluating genetically engineered trees may require additional methods of analyzing benefits and risks, given some of the scientific uncertainties involved as well as the cultural values attached to natural forests.
* The technology holds promise for the forestry and forest products industries and potentially for environmental conservation.
* The potential environmental impacts of genetically engineered trees must be weighed against the costs of not pursuing the technology.
* Genetically engineered trees could avoid some of the controversy associated with GE crops if the first products that hit the market have a clear value to the end consumer, rather than chiefly benefiting technology providers and growers.
* Potential environmental risks and need for public participation in decisions about the application of biotechnology in forestry may require a different regulatory process for genetically engineered trees.
A PDF version of the report as well as a program are available on the Pew Initiative's website at http://www.pewagbiotech.org.
The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research project whose goal is to inform the public and policymakers on issues about genetically modified food and agricultural biotechnology, including its importance, as well as concerns about it and its regulation. It is funded by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to the University of Richmond.