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Forest Biotechnologies in Developing Countries

Forests and other wooded areas perform key economic and ecological functions. Not only do they provide goods and livelihoods but they also protect soils, regulate water and absorb carbon. Forests also shelter much of the world's biodiversity. The world has slightly less than 4 billion hectares of forests, covering about 30 percent of the world's land area. The production of wood and non-wood forest products is the primary function for 34 percent of the world's forests. More than half of all forests are used for wood and non-wood production in combination with other functions such as soil and water protection, biodiversity conservation and recreation. Only 7 percent of forests in the world are in plantations, with the balance found in natural or semi-natural, largely unmanaged and undomesticated forest stands. Planted forests are expanding, and their contribution to global industrial wood production is approaching 50 percent of the total. About 1.6 billion people rely heavily on forest resources for their livelihoods.

The forestry sector differs from the crop or livestock sectors in a number of important ways, such as that forest trees are highly heterozygous long-lived perennials with late sexual maturity and a lengthy regeneration cycle, which places high priority on retaining genetic diversity as an insurance policy against rapid change; most forest tree species have narrow regional adaptation, so the numbers of species used for planting are much higher than for food crops; forest trees serve as keystone species in dynamic ecosystems, so managing against loss translates into more than tree survival; forest trees are largely undomesticated although a few species have had some population-level improvement for one to four generations.

For management of naturally regenerated forests, DNA-based and biochemical markers are available for a growing number of tropical species. Today, findings are available to guide operational forest management plans, including in developing countries, but only for a very limited number of the hundreds of tree species that are managed in naturally regenerated tropical forests. This area of forest biotechnology continues to expand, moving from tools development into more hypothesis-driven knowledge acquisition. Such research inquiry is a powerful source of pertinent knowledge for protecting tropical forests. This research is also moving from molecular markers into genomics. Biotechnology tools such as molecular markers and genomics are therefore providing important knowledge about naturally regenerated tropical forests and important insights into the nature of the entire tropical forest ecosystems, including the relationship between the forest trees and the microbial communities with which they interact, which can influence the strategies employed for managing tropical forests.

For planted forests, although there is some overlap, the range of biotechnologies used is generally quite different from that used for naturally regenerated forests. Plantations can have different types of management systems (e.g. intensive, semi-intensive) and use different types of genetic material (e.g. wild material, genetically improved trees). Depending on the level of management intensity and the genetic material used in the planted forest, different groups of biotechnologies can be used. For simplicity, three different groups of biotechnologies can be identified according to the type of planted forests, ranging from the least sophisticated to the most advanced.

A first group of biotechnologies is suitable for the least intensively managed planted forests, and includes a range of vegetative propagation methods (including micropropagation based on tissue culture), biofertilizers and genetic fingerprinting using molecular markers. It could also be complemented by conventional technologies, such as early-stage tree improvement programmes.

A second group of biotechnologies can be used for planted forests that provide industrial raw materials on a large planting scale. The single species used for plantations may be indigenous or exotic, but these plantations are intensively managed. This group of biotechnologies includes somatic embryogenesis (a tissue culture technique), molecular markers and quantitative trait locus (QTL) analyses, whole genome sequencing and functional genomics.

A third and most sophisticated group of biotechnologies includes backward and reverse genomics approaches, whole-genome sequencing, low-cost vegetative propagation and genetic modification of forest trees. To date, the only report of commercial plantings with genetically modified (GM) trees is for poplar, in China. However, most tree species used in planted forests have been successfully modified at the experimental level, and traits that have been the subject of extensive research include stem shape, herbicide resistance, flowering characteristics, lignin content, insect and fungal resistance. Many developing countries currently have biosafety regulations for agricultural crops, including fruit-trees, although many others lack such frameworks and the capacity to implement them. There are no regulations, however, specific to the use of GM forest trees. Although policies and regulations adopted for agricultural crops are also likely to be used for forest trees, they present special challenges (long time frames and life spans, wild resource, major constituents of an ecosystem). Forests are not only trees, and forest ecosystems are more fragile, longer-lived and less closely controlled than crop fields. Decision-making is complicated by the fact that while agriculture is primarily viewed as a production system, forests are generally viewed as a natural system, important not only for the conservation of biodiversity but also for social and cultural values. Thus, the use of GM forest trees is viewed more as a political and environmental issue than as a technical or trade issue.

For more information, see

- Current status and options for forest biotechnologies in developing countries [ - 226 KB], prepared for the FAO international technical conference on Agricultural Biotechnologies in Developing Countries (ABDC-10) that took place 1-4 March 2010 in Guadalajara, Mexico.

- Preliminary review of biotechnology in forestry, including genetic modification. Forest Genetic Resources Working Paper 59, providing a summary of four studies commissioned by FAO between 2002 and 2004 to investigate the worldwide extent and patterns of biotechnology research and application in forest trees.

Page Last Updated: July 2010

©FAO/Franco Mattioli
©FAO/L. Dematteis
Agricultural Biotechnologies in Developing Countries (ABDC-10) Conference