Petition seeks review of international policies banning biotech trees

January 8, 2019

A coalition of forest scientists and the Alliance for Science have launched a petition calling for an immediate review of international policies that are hindering research on the use of biotechnology to improve forest health.

This petition is timed to highlight the release of a National Academy of Sciences report, The Potential for Biotechnology to Address Forest Health, that identifies biotechnology as a key tool for helping to manage forest health and associated pest epidemics.

The petition calls on the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification — two key certifying bodies — to reconsider their ban on genetically modified trees and bring it in line with current scientific evidence.

“Forests are extraordinarily important sources of renewable products and they also provide major ecosystem services, but they’re under increasing stress,” said Steve Strauss of Oregon State University. “That’s because of a variety of reasons like increasing demand for products, as well as climate change and the proliferation of forest pests.”

Biotech research may hold solutions, but that research is hamstrung because trees that have been modified using recombinant DNA — formed by directing specific changes in native DNA, or by combining genetic material from different organisms — aren’t allowed in certified forests.

“Sustainable forest certification systems are in a good position to take a leadership role with responsibly used biotech trees,” said Adam Costanza, a senior research scientist with the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement. “We can’t afford to turn our backs on tools that might stop forest pests, increase productivity, and combat changing climates.”

However, the current ban prevents researchers from studying rDNA trees on certified lands for any reason, even to save a native tree species against an invasive pest. They are also precluded from using rDNA organisms for biocontrol, despite advancements in gene editing that can increase precision and reduce off-target effects.

The forestlands certified under those standards amount to approximately 470 million hectares — an area greater than Australia. The ban includes gene editing methods such as CRISPR, the most precise system for improving the beneficial traits of an organism.

“Even rDNA tree research outside of certified forest areas is restricted to the point of stopping an organization from developing a useful tree,” the petition states. “FSC bans organizations that are directly or indirectly involved in the introduction of genetically modified organisms in forestry operations. The result of these bans and research restrictions is to stop the very thing sustainable forest management systems demand they need before making an informed decision: information.”

The rDNA ban runs counter to the fact that a range of other biotechnologies, including selection, hybridization, grafting and vegetative propagation, have long been accepted as safe and useful tools for promoting forest productivity and adaptation to stress.

Strauss said the certifying bodies believe that no research with rDNA trees can be conducted safely — a view that has been disproven by many years of science conducted around the world.

“Government-approved trials have a safety record beyond anything expected for other kinds of forestry genetics research,” he said. “New technology always demands continued improvement and oversight, so rather than forbid rDNA research in certified forests, these management systems should be encouraging the development and careful evaluation of rDNA options.”

Strauss stressed that the petition does not endorse all uses of rDNA in forestry or advocate for unrestricted use.

“These technologies are … new tools that require scientific research to evaluate and refine them on a case-by-case basis,” the petition states. “Given the rapidly growing threats to forests, the need for expanded production of sustainable and renewable forest products and ecological services, and the growing power and precision of biotechnologies, we believe that rDNA research should not be precluded from certified forests.”