Scientists call for gene-edited trees in certified forests

By Joan Conrow

August 23, 2019

Fifteen scientists published a letter in Science Magazine today calling on international forest certification programs to review and modify policies that exclude genetically engineered or gene-edited trees.

Their call reflects the sentiments of some 1,000 signatories from across the globe who signed a recent petition managed by the Alliance for Science.

The statement is important because more than 500 million hectares — some 13 percent of the world’s forest — are affected by the largest certification systems, which are intended to reassure consumers that the wood they buy is sustainably sourced. The scientists argue that genetically engineered (GE) trees can make significant contributions to sustainable forest management — especially now that forests face mounting stresses posed by invasive pests and climate change.

New tools are needed to protect forests from invasive pests and other threats, scientists say.

“To face the challenges of forest health, carbon sequestration, and maintenance of other ecological services, we must use all available tools,” they wrote. “GE tree research should be allowed immediately on certified land, and GE trees proven by research to provide value should eventually be allowed in certified forests.”

In making their call, the scientists noted the “great promise” shown by field trials of trees with traits related to sustainability, such as productivity, wood quality, pest and stress resistance, protection of endangered species and reproductive control. They also pointed out that there are no hazards unique to GE methods compared with conventional breeding methods.

“Instead of categorically excluding GE methods, each application of GE technology should be evaluated on its individual merits based on the trait and its mechanism,” the scientists wrote.

The call was timed to coincide with the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) annual stakeholder meeting coming up on Oct. 3, followed by the Forest Stewardship Council general assembly on Oct. 8.

The petition and letter were co-organized by Dr. Steven Strauss of Oregon State University and Adam Costanza, a North Carolinian who holds a masters of environmental management. Signatories included William Powell, whose American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project includes use of genetic engineering to re-establish the iconic chestnut tree, Wout Boerjan, Vincent Chiang, Heather Coleman, John M. Davis, Meng-Zhu Lu, Shawn D. Mansfield, Scott Merkle, Alexander Myburg, Ove Nilsson, Gilles Pilate, Armand Seguin and Sofia Valenzuela.