Are We Ready for Genetically Modified … Trees?
That’s right, it’s more than just corn and soybeans. Scientists are now considering the genetic modification of trees. What need is there to modify a tree, you ask? Well, in an effort to grow more “sustainable” paper-yielding crops, scientists have figured out how to genetically engineer trees that require less chemicals, energy, and processing to produce pulp — as opposed to the current wasteful system. Attempts to alter trees in the past have been unsuccessful, leading to stunted growth or loss of strength. However, these modified trees (poplar, in this case) seem to be successful in retaining their growth-potential and integrity against wind and infestation, but are able to break down more easily at a temperature of 100 C for processing. Read more about the process here. On the one hand, the process would make paper manufacturing less petroleum and chemical dependent, but at what cost?
It is obvious that in this age of the Internet, we are using increasingly less paper. One could argue that that alone is more environmentally-friendly than creating GM trees. But even if paper is on the out, scientists believe the process could be useful with other plants in the creation of biofuels, for which there is a strong demand and open market.
Perhaps some good could come of this technology, but it is a dangerous game. The greatest concern is the possibility of contamination with our native forests. Conceptually, it would be quite easy, and could endanger biodiversity. However, scientists argue that cross-contamination with native stands of trees is entirely avoidable — through tactics like harvesting before maturity, planting GM trees far away from natives so that cross-pollination is “impossible,” and modifying genes so that the GM trees are sterile. Perhaps these tactics would be useful in a large greenhouse/warehouse. Unfortunately, the Great Outdoors is not a controlled scenario, and anything could happen. What do you think? Do these ideas sound infallible, or could Murphy’s law creep in through the cracks? Do we really have any business altering the genes of living, evolving organisms with whom we coinhabit the Earth?
In the meantime, if we could all cancel our junk mail, we’d be two steps ahead.