There are currently three key important issues concerning forest reproductive material. They relate to its ownership, introduction, and modification.
6.2.1 OWNERSHIP OF FOREST REPRODUCTIVE MATERIAL: bioprospecting and biopiracy.
The Convention on Biological Diversity and subsequent initiatives highlight the importance of understanding ownership of biodiversity. It raises many questions. Who actually owns - that is - has property rights to the material itself (e.g.the seeds)? Who owns the diversity that its genes produce? Who owns the local, indigenous or traditional knowledge (IK or TK) about the botany and local uses of species (ethnobotany)? Or who owns the various varieties that have been developed, sometimes incidentally, as local people have selected and replanted trees and crops? Is it a common heritage for all peoples? Or is it the property of nations who may own the forest; the companies who discovered a particular chemical; the local communities who have lived in and made use of the forest for centuries; or of the private individuals who own the land and the trees on it?
From the beginning of our efforts to improve trees, forest reproductive material has been important as herbarium material in exploratory taxonomic studies, and - usually as seeds - has been essential for regenerating trees for further study or planting. This has often meant exploration, selection and collection of material in countries outside those where the studies, experiments or plantations take place. Such has been the case for centuries with agricultural material and crops. Until recently, limited attention has been given to the issues of ownership in forestry, and who should have access to and benefit from the results of study and development carried out by outsiders. For this reason, elaboration of material transfer agreements is considered important, as they specify the terms and conditions for access and sharing of benefits.
The term bioprospecting is relatively new and describes the search for economically valuable genetic and biochemical natural resources. It could include all the "prospecting" or exploratory work done in the past for forestry. However it is now applied, in a more limited context, to the search for specific traits in genes (such as pest or disease resistance) or chemicals from which new drugs can be developed (referred to as phytopharmaceuticals or phytomedicines). Such prospecting is usually carried out by commercial firms, who need to make profits - which can be substantial. The question of who should have a share in those profits then becomes much more important. If this is not equitably shared, then the material and benefits are effectively pirated, a situation now popularly described as biopiracy. Some would argue that biopiracy has been happening since the beginning of plant exploration. It has been pointed out that in the fields of agriculture, including forestry, we deal mainly at the level of intra-specific variation of a number of actually or potentially useful species, in the case of bioprospecting in the much publicised field of medicinal compounds, the focus is on species level variation.
6.2.2 INTRODUCTION OF SPECIES: alien invasives.
The subject of ownership discussed previously is an issue because much reproductive material has been collected in one nation or geographic region, and introduced into another. This has been the case for most agricultural crops, and is also the case for many tree species. Such introduced or exotic species have often been a success because they have been selected from a wider range of species with desirable traits (from a forestry point-of-view - such as fast growth), than would be available from local, native or indigenous species. The introduced species often have no diseases or pests in their new environment and so grow better. Introduced hybrids can show particularly favourable characteristics in this respect.
In the majority of cases, introduced species are frequently of very great economic, environmental and social value and, at times, they help sustain national and local economies; they are thus, per se, acceptable or desirable. However, such species can give cause for concern when insufficient consideration is given to the context of their use and their management. This has led to exotic species getting a bad name, and being rejected for real or perceived environmental and cultural reasons that may or may not be justified (e.g. in the case of Prosopis, Eucalyptus, some pines and poplars).
The natural reproductive ability of some introduced species is currently giving cause for real concern. Although climatic differences in their new environment may mean that they cannot reproduce at all, in other cases, ease of natural regeneration and lack of pests and diseases result in the species becoming uncontrollable and, at times, weedy. Weediness (or invasiveness) is not only a physical problem, but also a biological one when the species alters a native ecosystem in a direction conceived as undesirable.”Invasives" and especially “alien invasives” are presently a political as well as technical issue. They are presenting serious problems in many countries, and require stringent control, usually by eradication or rendering the plant sterile, and banning of import and further propagation. It is possible to be pre-emptive by studying the reproductive biology of the species and its growth characteristics in its natural habitat, and ensuring that proper considerations are given to all aspects, including invasiveness, in species introduction and management. FAO, with a number of partners, has sponsored a number of studies reviewing the issue.
6.2.3 MODIFICATION OF GENOTYPES: genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms
The improvement of genetic quality starts with the natural variability provided by species, provenances, and individuals. This is then used as a basis for breeding to actively combine and improve desirable traits. Subsequent generations of breeding bring further improvement. Such improvement has been practiced for centuries in agriculture, but is more recent in forestry. All such selection and breeding involves using the natural variability of genes on chromosome that are found in genotypes / genomes. Genetic engineering takes a step further, in that the chromosomes and their genes are added, moved or modified. Modification may entail transferring genes from one individual, or one species, to another, by physical or chemical means, The result is a genetically modified or transgenic tree (known generically as a genetically modified organism (GMO)). Genetic engineering is just one advanced technique of biotechnology, a term that can encompass traditional plant breeding, but tends to be used for a range of new micro-techniques which range from quantifying genetic diversity (using molecular markers), or improving vegetative propagation in order to support breeding and multiplication, through to genetic engineering. Note that one use of the term bio-engineering is different - see REGENERATION IN THE FIELD).
For information on biotechnological tools, see the FAO webpublication page:
For more general information on biotechnology in the forestry sector, see the FAO webpublication page:
For an article on the role and implications of biotechnological tools in forestry, see:
For general references on biotechnology in forestry, see the FAO webpublication page:
Genetic engineering is being used extensively in some important crops in agriculture. It is causing concern because of the potential unknown effects of interfering with the genes. These effects can be either to the organism itself as it develops and reproduces; or to other organisms where cross breeding of the modified organism occurs (such as through natural pollination), or (possibly) to the people if they use or consume the organism. FAO notes that genetic modification is not a good in itself, but a tool which must be integrated into a wider research agenda. Developing transgenic crops implies massive investments, and the need for massive returns; strategies for improvement and breeding must be balanced to meet objectives in a balanced and optimized manner:
For general information on GMOs in agriculture, see the following articles on Genetically Modifed Crops and their future, on the FAO Web publication pages:
In forestry, genetic modification is being tested using techniques such as recombinant DNA and asexual gene transfer, to introduce herbicide and pest resistance, or to reduce or modify the lignin content of wood. Experiments have been carried out on several species, but are most advanced for poplar, pine and eucalyptus. No commercial plantations of GM trees have yet been established.
The problems associated with GM trees are potentially more serious than for agricultural crops. There are several reasons for this, one being that because trees are relatively undomesticated, and have a long life cycle, there is an increased risk of contaminating natural populations. However, the characteristics most likely to be selected for are simply-inherited traits found within the natural variation of the species, which should reduce potential problems. One way that may avoid these problems is to engineer the tree so that it is sterile.
GMOs are a concern for some institutions wishing to grow and certify organically or sustainably managed products. The Forestry Stewardship Council (see REGULATING & APPLYING STANDARDS) will not certify genetically modified plantations, because of the unknown effects and potential costs which could not be certified as "sustainable". However, some certifying schemes do allow use of GM trees.
Problems of invasiveness, introduction of pests and diseases, and uncontrolled changes following genetic engineering etc, all carry enviromental, social and economic risk of adverse effects on people. The measures taken to manage these risks via policy, law, technology etc. are now collectively referred to by the term bioprotection, which encompasses terms previously used of biosecurity and biosafety.