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Genetically Modified Forest Planned for U.S. Southeast
02-01-2010, 10:32 PM,
Genetically Modified Forest Planned for U.S. Southeast
Quote:Genetic engineering is coming to the forests.

While the practice of splicing foreign DNA into food crops has become common in corn and soy, few companies or researchers have dared to apply genetic engineering to plants that provide an essential strut of the U.S. economy, trees.

But that will soon change. Two industry giants, International Paper Co. and MeadWestvaco Corp., are planning to transform plantation forests of the southeastern United States by replacing native pine with genetically engineered eucalyptus, a rapidly growing Australian tree that in its conventional strains now dominates the tropical timber industry.

The companies' push into genetically modified trees, led by their joint biotech venture, ArborGen LLC, looks to overcome several hurdles for the first time. Most prominently, they are banking on a controversial gene splice that restricts trees' ability to reproduce, meant to allay fears of bioengineered eucalyptus turning invasive and overtaking native forests.

If such a fertility control technology -- which has come under fire in farming for fear seed firms will exploit it -- is proven effective, it could open the door to many varieties of wild plants, including weedy grasses, to be genetically engineered for use in energy applications like biomass and next-generation biofuels without fear of invasiveness.

The use of such perennial plants -- so named because, unlike annual farm crops, they live and grow for many years -- has long interested business and government, including the Energy Department, which has collaborated with ArborGen. The plants, which include many grasses targeted for cellulosic ethanol, can be harvested when needed and, given their hardiness, grow on marginal land.

Yet many questions remain about the effectiveness of the fertility system used by ArborGen, which, according to leading scientists, has never been rigorously studied in multiyear trials to prove that it can effectively control plants' spread. More research must be conducted before such systems are relied upon to restrict pollen and seed spread, they say.

Despite these calls, ArborGen has been seeking government deregulation of its eucalyptus, which is primarily engineered to resist freezing temperatures, since 2008. If successful, ArborGen would likely revolutionize the timber industry and the Southern landscape by becoming the first company to roll out bioengineered trees on a massive scale, observers say.

In its rosiest scenarios, growers using ArborGen's presumably expensive seeds would see huge gains in productivity and become the preferred tree stock for a new generation of bioenergy refineries. The South would become the new Appalachia; timber would serve as its coal. Inklings of such progress have already arisen, including recent word that the German utility RWE AG would build the world's largest wood-pellet plant in Georgia to supplement its coal habits.

By adopting eucalyptus as a tree stock, the United States would simply be catching up with countries like Brazil, which has leveraged vast tree plantations in recent decades to pivot from a net wood importer to an exporter. While the South saw a rise in pine plantations during this time, pine cannot compete with eucalyptus for sheer growth rate, the company says.

"The United States is behind the game on this," said Les Pearson, ArborGen's director of regulatory affairs. "Lots of countries around the world have been growing eucalyptus for many decades."

Indeed, primarily because of competition from South America, demand for traditional American tree pulp has gone slack. This sagging industry could allow up to 10 million acres in the Southeast to be repurposed for fast-growing eucalyptuses, according to corporate estimates.

But it still remains unclear if the nascent bioenergy industry will be enough to make up for demand lost to Brazilian plantations, said Curtis Seltzer, a timber consultant who has studied ArborGen and calls its trees a "game changer."

"It's not clear to me that biomass will pick up the slack for the traditional markets [as they] ebb," Seltzer said. "But it could."

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