NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Biotech Forests: An Environmental Blessing?

December 14, 2010

Genetically modified grains, fruits and vegetables have become ubiquitous on U.S. farms and in supermarkets.  Genetically modified trees could be a boon as well, say Wesley Dwyer, a policy intern, and H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow, with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

If commercialized on a large scale, genetically modified trees would provide numerous benefits.  For instance:

  • Tree species can be modified to enable them to resist pathogens and destructive pests.
  • Trees modified to produce high yields of cellulose could be a cost-effective source for cellulosic ethanol production, a renewable transportation fuel.
  • Forests of biotech trees could remove carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, more efficiently from the atmosphere than unmodified trees.
  • Commercial development of genetically modified trees could reduce the need for timber products companies to expand into virgin forests and lessen the demand from forests already being harvested.

Environmentalists warn of the dangers of genetically modified trees.  For instance, they have speculated that biotech trees could result in the development of superbugs or uncontrollable crossbreeding with nonbiotech trees of the same species (or with other nontarget species).  These fears have also been raised with respect to biotech foods but have not materialized, despite hundreds of millions of acres of biotech crops under cultivation around the world.  Additionally, more than one million modified trees have been planted alongside unmodified trees in China without incident, say Dwyer and Burnett.

Genetically modified trees have many potential benefits.  The federal government should not allow unsubstantiated fears to inhibit this potentially beneficial line of research, nor should it prohibit commercialization through excessive regulation in response to such fears, absent proof of likely harm.

Source: Wesley Dwyer and H. Sterling Burnett, "Biotech Forests: An Environmental Blessing?" National Center for Policy Analysis, December 14, 2010.

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