As was the case for the e-mail conference on crops (Conference 1), this conference asked a similar question, i.e. "how appropriate are currently available biotechnologies for the forestry sector in developing countries?" Again, the three major areas of discussion revolved around biotechnology based on the use and development of
a) molecular genetic markers
b) micropropagation and
c) genetically modified (GM) trees.
However, the technology of genetic modification was by far the primary topic of discussion.
Thirty-two submissions were received during the e-mail conference, compared to 138 in the crop conference, but the 32 messages covered a wide range of ideas related to the three major areas. Comments ranged from general observations to very detailed suppositions. Important points were made several times and these formed the basis for "themes" that emerged.
Section 1 of this document attempts to summarise these themes. Section 2 provides additional points that did not fall logically into the general themes, but were important points to consider. Specific references to messages posted, giving the participant's surname and the date posted (day/month), are included. Section 3 provides some information about participation in the conference and Section 4 gives the names and country of the people that sent referenced messages.
1. Major themes and factors of importance for the application of biotechnology
a) All biotechnologies need to be considered within the framework of a larger genetic resource management program
This point was made several times, i.e. modern biotechnology should only be realistically developed for species which already have a substantial infrastructure in basic plantation technology, e.g., in seed collection, nursery techniques, silviculture and in tree breeding and related research.
Serrano (9/5) indicated that while research is underway in somatic embryogenesis in pine in Mexico, the largest problem is that of basic forest management practices (e.g., appropriate harvesting systems). This may point out a fundamental dilemma for developing countries with respect to investments in biotechnology. If there are more basic forest management issues to be solved, then should investments be made in technologies that may never be applied ? Burdon (20/6), added to this by saying, "in the short to medium term, the development of biotechnology is likely to make much increased demands of the breeding infrastructure."
Southerton (19/6) emphasised this point again by saying that there is a danger in rushing to use the latest technologies when more basic approaches, such as provenance testing (i.e. seed source) and selection of appropriate plantation species, would provide a much larger payoff. Ashton (13/6) suggested that the discussion may be premature for forestry at this time (e.g., it is not yet simple to transfer multiple-gene constructs to a recipient genome), so developing countries need to focus more on "recreating the full local diversity of forest ecosystems" rather than "genetically engineering some unstable, unpredictable exotic import."
Several contributors appropriately pointed out that many GM transformed clones would have to be developed for use at any one time, and most would be screened out due to poor performance or poor stability. Smith (15/6) suggested that if there are additional concerns about the use of GM trees (over and above simple clonal forestry), there could be requirements for increasing the rigour and length of time for field testing protocols. This could put the utility of technology in an even more cost prohibitive situation. DiFazio (7/6), Strauss (7/6) and Smith (15/6) all agreed that deployment and monitoring schemes that address appropriate genetic considerations for safety and productivity of GM tree plantations have to be developed and implemented. Furthermore, as suggested by Strauss (7/6), and supported by Hong (8/6), the assessment of risk could be responsibly monitored if there are step by step requirements laid out: "the same requirements that should apply to any good silviculture or breeding program."
Even in more developed tree breeding programs, a push to develop advanced techniques such as markers for quantitative trait loci selection could increase demands on tree breeding programs (e.g. larger progeny tests required). Burdon (20/6) summarised this theme quite appropriately by saying, "the application of new biotechnology will need to stand as an enhancement of classical breeding, rather than as a substitute for it".
b) Long rotation ages for most forest tree species
Lindgren (4/5) made several observations related to the use of new biotechnology and the long generation time of tree species relative to crop species. He noted that, first, many developing countries are in warmer climates and many of the species used by them may have relatively short rotation ages (Moderators note: rotation age is the age at which trees are harvested). GM trees with short rotation ages would also be more reliable, with respect to expression of the trait (i.e. testing ages may more closely correspond to harvesting ages, so there would be greater confidence in trait expression). For long-rotation species, there would be many doubts, because testing would probably not be able to cover the full rotation (which is particularly important if the trait is required for the full lifetime of the tree). Second, some of the end-product objectives of GM trees, e.g. special pulping attributes, are likely to be more relevant for short rotation species. Third, even for some of the major commercially important pine species (with rotation ages typically over 20 years), investments in new biotechnologies may not be profitable. However, he proposed that it could be appropriate for those species that will be tested and harvested within a roughly 10-year time frame (Moderators note: we are assuming this approximation would need to be based on some investment calculations).
Strauss (10/5, message 4) stated that GM trees will be limited to the common short-rotation forest tree species in intensively grown plantations in the developing world (e.g. Eucalyptus) and intensively managed species (e.g. poplars and some pines) in the developed world. Later (7/6), he re-iterated the point that GM trees "will only be used commercially after a number of years of testing on many sites. During this process the vast majority of transgenic lines are discarded......only those that are most stable and perform well are considered for commercial use". Lindgren (14/6), supported by Southerton (19/6), pointed out that there would be a tendency to use fewer clones, so it may be best to see how trends develop for clonal forestry programs (e.g. in Eucalyptus) around the world. Again, this stresses the need, as mentioned in Section 1a), for developing genetic diversity and deployment guidelines. Strauss (7/6) stressed the basic fact that there are also substantial physical limitations to establishing large areas of forest tree plantations on a scale and time frame similar to that of crop species.
In summary, lengthy research and developmental periods will be required to develop and deploy GM trees. Therefore, it is likely that there will be a relatively long time period for foresters, relative to crop geneticists and agriculturists, to monitor and correct trends and policies in the use of GM trees, prior to large-scale use across plantation estates.
c) Technology being appropriate or inappropriate for developing countries
There was a clear consensus that many factors need to be considered in deciding whether or not any biotechnology is appropriate in forestry (i.e., biological, economical, and political restraints and opportunities). Therefore, it was not easy to say that modern biotechnology is either appropriate or not appropriate for developing countries.
As mentioned above, Lindgren (4/5) argued that although developing countries may not generally have advanced infrastructure and modern laboratories, they often have better growing conditions for trees (shorter rotations) than temperate/boreal developed countries. Strauss (7/6) noted this is particularly relevant for Eucalyptus in some developing countries, in which well-developed plantation forestry systems are already in place.
Keeping local options open was brought up a few times. As pointed out by Strauss (10/5, message 3), "why do we seek some kind of global consensus about use of genetically engineered plants and trees?". He added, "all practitioners know, the only place [GM trees] will find use, for the foreseeable future, is in intensively managed plantations - whether they be industry or community owned." Fenning (14/6) further supported this view by stating that people should be left "free to choose the most appropriate solution to local needs in future."
Another view of the issue was that if the appropriate technology exists for a given situation, it would be negligent not to apply the tools available, if we could manage the risks, as we do with many other technologies (Fenning (9/6)). For example, some modern tissue culture techniques may be suitable for special situations; such as the conservation and management of Prunus africana (Smith (11/5)), which has been used for medicinal purposes and may require special attention to ensure sustainability of the resource.
This does, however, raise the general concern of whether developing countries have the means and resources to appropriately assess or manage the risks, compared with more developed countries. This was to some degree raised by Johnston (11/5), who stated that the burden of proof for risk assessment should lie with the proponents of the technology. Smith (29/6) also pointed out that technologies might have additional "hidden costs" in the future and not just environmental risks. For instance, products from the early attempts at tissue culture showed that physiological ageing was present that could reduce stem volume growth in trees produced by tissue culture. (This may not be detected in the testing phase). An additional point is that even with the use of conventional technology (e.g. fast growing plantation management), the characteristics of the wood may change and require research and development in processing technology (e.g. special drying/sawing technology). These issues may be risky for developing countries that may not be able to bear the additional costs of research and development for a changed product.
d) Increased public awareness and societal concerns regarding the threats and benefits of biotechnology
Nine of the 32 e-mail submissions touched upon this general concern. A quote from Strauss, Raffa and List (26/5) is quite appropriate to sum up the general concerns of this theme:
"The challenges to ethical uses of GM trees in forestry reside not in the process by which they are created, but rather in how their new characteristics and use will affect the environment and society. Substantial benefits have been documented in laboratory and field experiments. However, there are reasonable ecological and social concerns based on precedents from other kinds of agricultural technology. The key problems are deciding when our knowledge base is adequate, when there has been sufficient public discussion, and when there is adequate social consensus that the net effects for proposed uses are positive. If the process of public evaluation is scientifically sound and democratically rigorous, it should be possible to enjoy a continuing flow of new products from this rapidly maturing technology for the benefit of forestry in coming decades. If it is not, the technology may remain on the shelf in spite of its technical merits."
Johnston (11/5) agreed that decisions regarding biotechnology should be made on local needs, economics and environmental considerations and that "all the risks and alternatives must be discussed alongside the possible benefits." Overall, there was a large consensus that there is a much greater need now for public information and awareness of these technologies, before they should or will be used. Although most, if not all, GM trees will be used in high investment plantations, there are complex ecological questions that still must be carefully analysed.
e) Ownership and sharing of germplasm, techniques and financial arrangements with developing countries
Compared to the crop conference, there was rather limited discussion on the problem of moving new technologies (e.g., genetic modification) to developing countries. Perhaps it is not as clear in forestry, with respect to where specific genetic modification technologies would be useful, as no GM trees have yet been commercially released.
In some developing countries, ownership of land, forests and trees is not clear. This was specifically raised by Fenning (19/5) who said that it may not be clear who owns the forests or trees in developing countries where this technology could be applied. This creates a fundamental problem of guarantees on who will actually reap the benefits from any specific investment in these situations.
Fenning later (14/6) suggested, as it was in the crop conference a few times, that there is a need for innovative ways to provide access to the appropriate biotechnology for local programs in developing countries. There were, however, no real proposals or examples in the e-mail conference where this was examined. Smith (13/6) pointed out that patent lives of around 20 years could provide substantial protection for certain types of biotechnologies. However, this may not be directly applicable to forestry, as trees planted 20 years from now with the patented technology, or those developed now but which are not harvested till later (after more than 20 years), may not be subject to such patent protection (or financial obligations or previous arrangements to the patent holders). In the short term, patent or ownership restrictions could have immediate effects on investment incentives, particularly if there are large upfront costs associated with purchasing rights to use various products or techniques of biotechnology.
Burdon (19/5), considering political and institutional aspects of biotechnology, wrote the following that summarises the issue quite nicely:
"Much may depend on the agencies involved. If large foreign investors are involved, they can in principle put in place a well-balanced technological base, whereby the biotechnology is properly coupled with complementary, field-based programmes in which there is a proper infrastructure of genetic management. However, for such an organisation, the operation in a single developing country may be a small part of a global risk spread, in contrast to the risk exposure for the individual country and especially the local community(ies). In this situation there will also be Intellectual Property issues, while the regulatory mechanisms for risk management (which is not straightforward anywhere) are likely to be weak."
2. Additional points of relevance to the use of biotechnology in forestry
a) Substantial concerns were raised about the risks of gene flow from GM plantations to adjacent natural populations (e.g. Serrano (9/6)). This was also a major concern in the crop conference. In the case of GM trees, most of the discussion led to the conclusion that sterility would be preferred or required in situations where GM trees will be established in large plantations close to natural forests composed of the same species.
b) Developments in tissue culture research have been geared primarily to improving the advantages of clonal selection, but are now also required and used in the delivery system for GM transformation programs. Re-juvenation of mature tissues has always been desirable but difficult to obtain. Smith (11/5) pointed out he has had success with this in radiata pine (Pinus radiata), and if the technology could be routinely used it would provide new options for clonal programs (supported by Burdon (19/5)).
c) Smith (13/6) raised the issue of variety genetic use restriction technology (V-GURT) and trait-GURT (T-GURT) as they may relate to forestry. He discussed the potential impacts of both types and argued that T-GURT technology may be far off in the future in GM forest trees. Immonen (5/6) noted that while "terminator technology" has been considered largely negative for agriculture, it might be appropriate for forestry. This issue, however, is very much related to sterility or reduced flowering GM trees. Tree sterility with transgenic technology has been a major research area for several years now, but the genetic details of how it is created may not be as important as its reliability and use. Strauss (5/6) reiterated that functional redundancy for sterility was possible and this could ensure a high level of stability in the trait, but rigorous field-testing would still be required. Lindgren (14/6) expressed his viewpoint that sterility "seems to be the place to start [with GM trees]." Burdon (6/6) made the point that with genetic modification of forest trees there is a potential risk from a new pathogen strain arising years after the planting of trees with a particular genetic transformation.
d) Smith (6/6) presented some potential guidelines for the use of forest biotechnology in the developing world. He considered four situations: 1) multi-national companies (MNCs) operating in developing countries with exotic or 2) indigenous species, and 3) local/national governments or agencies operating with exotic or 4) indigenous species. These four categories could provide some useful structure once GM technology advances to the level where developing country governments and MNCs might attempt to establish agreements on the use of the technology.
e) Hong (8/6) noted that conventional breeding has accomplished astounding achievements in developing countries, such as increases in latex yield in rubber from 300 to 1500-2000 kg/ha. This may suggest that GM traits in forest trees might be best focused on introducing genetic characteristics that are not already available in the species.
f) "Retroactive transformation" (i.e. only transforming elite and desirable genotypes), which is not currently done in most GM tree programs, could reduce current costs of genetic transformation by approximately one-half (Smith (15/6)). This is because most GM tree research is still largely at the exploratory stage, and has not yet been incorporated into mainstream elite breeding programs anywhere in the world.
g) A few other interesting points were raised in the crop sector conference that were not specifically emphasised here, but which may be relevant to forestry in the future. These included, for example, issues of ownership and control of biotechnologies or the implications of Bt toxins on other organisms (e.g. soil fauna). This is probably due to the higher level of application of GM technology in the field today in agriculture, relative to forestry.
3. Participation in the conference
The conference ran from 25 April to 30 June 2000 and had 167 participants who submitted a total of 32 messages. In contrast to the first conference, on the crop sector, the vast majority of messages (88%) were from participants living in developed countries. They came from 15 individuals (9% of all registered) in 10 different countries. Five of these worked in universities and 4 in research institutes, while two each were from NGOs and the CGIAR and there was one each from the private industry and FAO. The countries contributing most messages were New Zealand (9), the United States (8) and Germany (5). Participants in Europe, Oceania and North America accounted for nearly 90% of all messages, while those in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) contributed 4 of the 32 messages.
4. Name and country of participants with referenced messages
Ashton, Glenn. South Africa.
Burdon, Rowland. New Zealand.
DiFazio, Steve. United States.
Fenning, Trevor. Germany.
Hong, L.T. Malaysia.
Immonen, Sirkka. Italy.
Johnston, Sam. United States.
Lindgren, Dag. Sweden.
Serrano, Carlos Ramirez. Mexico.
Smith, Dale. New Zealand.
Southerton, Simon. Australia.
Strauss, Steven. United States.
Strauss, Steven; Raffa, Kenneth and List, Peter. All from United States.
Bt = Bacillus thuringiensis; CGIAR = Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research; FAO = Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; GM = genetically modified; MNCs = multi-national corporations; NGOs = non-governmental organisations; T-GURT = trait genetic use restriction technology; V-GURT = variety genetic use restriction technology