Scientists seize ‘once in a decade’ opportunity to advocate for genetically engineered trees

By Joan Conrow

November 30, 2021

Nearly 700 scientists from across the globe have signed a petition urging the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to allow genetically engineered trees in the forests and products that it certifies.

The action came in response to the FSC’s request for consultations, which will be accepted through Friday, Dec. 3. Though the FSC currently prohibits the use of genetically modified (GM) trees in its certified forests, it does allow field testing and some of its member companies are investing in biotechnology research. With the consultation request, it is now considering what role it should play in setting the conditions and safeguards for the commercial use of GM trees and whether it should engage in a trial project for the use of GM trees in forests that the FSC does not certify.

“We have a once in a decade opportunity to influence decision makers at FSC and less than a decade to develop strategies to save our forests in many parts of the world,” wrote Prof. Alexander Myburg, director of the Forest Molecular Genetics Program at the University of Pretoria, in a letter to his colleagues.

The petition urges the FSC “to allow responsible research and associated use of gene edited or genetically engineered trees by FSC certified companies.” It notes that extensive safeguards are already in place, biosafety regulations are strong in much of the world and allowing GM research on non-certified lands would support scientific research and development.

“There have been decades of research that show GE technology is safe and can provide useful traits in trees,” the petition states. “Our natural and planted forests face unprecedented decline as a result of rapid climate change, extreme weather events and pest and pathogen challenges. GE is a major technology that is being used in numerous crops and trees to produce plants that can better resist the stresses associated with these challenges. A precautionary approach demands that the responsible development of such solutions is facilitated by FSC, not impeded.”

The petition goes on to express “hope that the FSC will rise above the political and ideological noise that is so prominent in this area and put science, and this advice from public sector scientists, at the top of its considerations with respect to policies for GE trees.”

Some anti-GMO groups, including the Global Justice Ecology Project, are soliciting comments in opposition to GM tree field-testing, falsely claiming that “GM trees can never be sustainable” and trials would inevitably open the door to wider use of GM trees.

Scientists, on the other hand, contend that introducing traits like faster growth, insect resistance and defense against deadly fungi would help improve the resilience and sustainability of forests, especially as they face increased threats from climate change, fires and insect pest infestations.

Comments will be accepted on the FSC site up until midnight Central Europe Time on Dec. 3. Scientists can also add their names to the petition.

Image: Scientists are using genetic engineering to protect chestnut trees from a deadly fungus, among other applications. Photo: Shutterstock/JoshuaDaniel