Understanding GMO's and Forestry

A sculpture of DNA among the trees. Photo credit: Aras Bilgen, Flickr Creative Commons

Guest post by Amy Grotta, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension – Columbia, Washington & Yamhill Counties

This week, the closest contest of last November’s Oregon election – the GMO labeling initiative – was finally put to rest after a recount.  The measure ultimately failed by a tiny margin, but it did a lot to put GMO’s into the public spotlight. Of course, the ballot measure had to do with food labeling, not trees, but it got me thinking that it might be worth looking at how GMOs relate to forestry.

A sculpture of DNA among the trees
A sculpture of DNA among the trees. Photo credit: Aras Bilgen, Flickr Creative Commons

What is a GMO?

In case you were not following along during election season, let’s start with a definition. A GMO is an organism whose genes have been directly altered by humans, in a laboratory, through genetic engineering within individual cells. GMO methods can be used to modify an organism’s own DNA or to insert DNA from another organism. The modified cells then are regenerated into whole organisms. Reasons for doing this might be to improve crop productivity, disease resistance, the nutritional yield of food plants, or resistance to herbicides to facilitate weed control. From the technology itself to the ways that GMO might be used in society, it quickly becomes obvious why GMOs can be very controversial.

What is not a GMO?

So, on to forestry and trees. Planting season is upon us, and if your seedlings are coming from one of the small woodlands seedling sales, or from a large commercial forest nursery, and you are planting Douglas-fir, then chances are your seedlings are advertised as “genetically improved”. Some people mistakenly think that this means that they are GMO trees, but this is not the case. For decades, we have employed traditional breeding techniques in forestry to produce seedlings that perform well. On the most basic level, this means that parent trees with desirable traits, such as drought tolerance, height growth, frost resistance, etc. are identified. Seeds or cuttings from these trees are collected and grown in a controlled area such as a seed orchard. More seed is collected from these trees, so that the desired traits can be passed on to the next generation. The “genetically improved” seedlings you plant are a product of this process, not of genetic engineering.

Chestnuts accumulated on a Portland sidewalk.
Chestnuts accumulated on a Portland sidewalk. Photo credit: Mike Kuniavsky, flickr.com Creative Commons

How might genetic engineering apply to forestry?

The story of the American chestnut tree is a good example. The American chestnut once was a major component of forests in the eastern United States. It was a valuable timber tree and an important food source for both people and animals. But, a fungal disease, the chestnut blight, introduced in the late 19th century virtually wiped it out. Only a few hundred trees survived. (American chestnut, while not native to Oregon, was brought over and planted by pioneers. The blight is not prevalent in Oregon, so chestnuts do well here.) Many people are working to try to restore the chestnut to its native range. Besides traditional breeding for blight resistance, some researchers are experimenting with genetic engineering. They have inserted a gene from wheat that conveys resistance to blight into American chestnut trees. The researchers are also testing many other genes, mostly derived from the blight resistant Chinese chestnut.

GMO research at Oregon State

At OSU, forestry professor Steve Strauss is recognized as a leader in genetic engineering research. He does a lot of his work on poplars and eucalypts, which have potential for bioenergy feedstocks, pulp and solid wood. But, before GMO plants like these could be utilized commercially, regulatory agencies and the public will subject them to a lot of scrutiny. For example, we need to be sure that there are no unintended consequences, such as unplanned spread of the modified genes to other non-GMO plants in the environment, or on a farm. So Dr. Strauss and his cooperators do a lot of laboratory and contained field studies on the safety and risks associated with genetically engineered trees, with the focus on methods for preventing their spread until they are more fully understood.

Despite the failure of the GMO labeling initiative this year, we certainly have not seen the end of the debate around this issue. So, it’s worth understanding what genetic engineering is and is not, and what the potential benefits and risks of this technology might be. For those who want to read further, I’ll refer you to this website: http://agbiotech.oregonstate.edu/

I think the bottom line (and here I probably ought to invoke a disclaimer*) is that genetic modification may eventually be a management tool, like herbicides, chainsaws, and other tools in your forestry “toolbox”. GMOs are inherently neither good nor bad. The more important questions for forest managers and for society are how, when, and for what purposes they are employed.

Of course, there was another big initiative on the ballot last November. And like GMO’s, the production of marijuana certainly has its intersections with forest ecology and management, as many people in southern Oregon might tell you. But that’s a topic for another day…

*Disclaimer: the opinions expressed on this blog are of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the position of Oregon State University as an institution.