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Executive summary

Developments and applications of forest biotechnology are rapidly expanding. They are becoming both more complex and more accessible throughout the world. There are fundamental differences in public perception and potential applications of biotechnology in forestry relative to agriculture. These differences stem from the multifaceted cultural and utilitarian role forests play, and their relatively recent history of domestication compared to that of agricultural crops.

In this report, we present a modified definition for biotechnology and propose five major categories of forest biotechnological tools. These are: (1) markers, (2) propagation, (3) functional genomics, (4) marker-aided selection/breeding, and (5) genetic modification. It should be emphasized that only one out of these five categories deal with genetic modification and its state-of-the-art is only experimental. However, common perception does not differentiate among categories and all are considered as genetic modification. This report represents an attempt to inventory and describe these activities. It is the aim of this document to reflect on the relevance, feasibility and operational aspects of a global review of biotechnology applications in the forestry sector, including present uses and foreseeable compilation and synthesis of forest biotechnology into a unified report detailing current global capability, development, applications, deployment and implications of each tool.



The current working definition of biotechnolology used by the FAO refers to any means of developing or using living organisms to produce or alter or improve a product or organism for a specified purpose (UNEP 1992; Schmidt 1997), which would include prehistoric plant and animal domestication. A more current perspective specifies biotechnology having commercial applications, featuring deliberate manipulation of the genetic components of living organisms or their products (IBPGR 1991; Iowa State University 1994).

These definitions, although accurate for the specific purposes for which they were intended, contribute to the prevalent confusion surrounding biotechnology and in particular forest biotechnology. In some cases, biotechnology is associated with genetic modification, and in others it can be used to define a broad spectrum of modern methods applicable to forest science. We propose a compromise between the two; more specific than the former, yet less utilitarian than the latter:

“the use of the whole or targeted portions of organisms to provide quantitative information and/or desired products, including the isolation and/or manipulation of specific genetic components of that organism”.

This would encompass both conventional plant or animal breeding as well as more modern developments which focus on only a portion of a biological system. The main reason for the proposed new definition is to clearly separate the part that is based on the generation of information and/or products without the intentional deliberate genetic manipulation from those methods that are exclusively require genetic modification. This approach is helpful in-light of Stone (2002) termed as the “global war of rhetoric” between supporters and opponents of food and agriculture biotechnology. It should be highlighted here that, technical advances in forest sciences, in general, followed the footsteps of that of agriculture, so it would not be a surprise to see the same controversial issues repeated in forestry.

Many recent publications, including working groups and conferences of the FAO, have dealt with various aspects of biotechnology in the forestry context (e.g., Krutovskii and Neale 2001; Yanchuk 2001; FAO 2002). During the past 15 years, this field has seen rapid development of new technology and a large increase in the number of groups involved in research and applications around the world (Ellis et al. 2001; Campbell et al. 2003). Research and testing of modern biotechnology in the initial stages requires up-to-date laboratory facilities. While the technological tools for forest biotechnology are typically adapted from an agricultural background, the subsequent applications and impacts differ substantially when applied to trees (Owusu 1999; FAO 2002). Biotechnology in forestry, for example its use in intensively managed plantations, engenders a host of issues not addressed by agricultural models, center to those is the relative long rotation required for forest crops to reach its economic maturity. The majority of these differences originate from the fundamental life history characteristics of trees as sessile, long-lived, out crossing organisms which can disperse pollen and seed across very long distances, and would likely be planted within potential mating proximity of wild, compatible populations or related species (DiFazio et al. 1999). Other differences between agriculture and forestry which must be taken into account stem from public perception: people often regard trees as essential components of forest ecosystems which perform many functions and provide many tangible and metaphysical values simultaneously, unlike most crop plants (Owusu 1999; FAO 2002).

Although anthropological influences are tractable in most of the world’s forests, and managed forests have been the norm in parts of Europe for centuries, trees have only been partly domesticated in the past half century. In effect, very few of these trees are only removed one or two generations from their wild congeners (Libby 1973). Since trees have fairly long generation times, breeding and deployment populations and even clonal lines produced through various vegetative propagation methods including biotechnological methods are still very similar to their wild contemporaries, unlike many agricultural crop plants (Campbell et al. 2003).

For example, teosinte has been transformed through millennia of traditional and intensive breeding into a narrow range of maize or corn lines, with a drastically different mating system, range, phenology, physiology and associated genetic characteristics.

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