Increasing use of biotechnology in the forestry sector has led the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to call for an international framework to assess the safety of genetically modified (GM) trees before they are commercialised.
Overall, genetic modification activities in forestry are taking place in at least 35 countries, with the vast majority of research still restricted to the laboratory, said the FAO on 13 July.
Most of this research is conducted in Europe and North America, but Asia now account for 14 per cent of the global total, while Africa and South America each produce just one per cent.
By genetically modifying trees, researchers hope to improve the quantity and quality of wood they produce, and to give the trees resistance to insects, diseases and herbicides. Both the timber and paper industries could benefit from such research, says the FAO.
It warns, however, against rushing to commercialise GM trees before conducting environmental risk assessments according to protocols agreed upon nationally and internationally.
"The issue goes beyond the country level, since pollen flow and seed dispersal do not take account of national boundaries, and wood is a global commodity," says Pierre Sigaud, a forest genetic resources expert at FAO.
Sigaud says a framework to govern research and application of GM forest trees on a case-by-case basis is essential.
China leads the developing world in applying biotechnology to forestry. In 2002, it became the first country in the world to commercially release genetically modified (GM) trees, planting 1.4 million poplars (Populus nigra). In addition, nine trials of GM trees are underway there.
The GM poplars contain a bacterial gene that produces a toxin that kills insects feeding on the trees.
The risks associated with planting GM trees include pathogens and insect pests developing resistance to the modified traits, and modified genes 'escaping' into other species.
Sigaud adds that a lack of reliable information makes it difficult to reach conclusions on the potential impacts of GM forests.
"The economic value of forest products in global trade is far less than that of agricultural products, and an economic rationale for employing biotechnology in forestry has not yet been clearly demonstrated."
Genetic modification is just a small part of overall applications of biotechnology in forestry. Other techniques include cloning and efforts to identify the entire genetic sequence — or 'genome' — of economically important tree species.
Indian researchers, for instance, are using 'micropropagation' to clone plants from tiny pieces of tissue. Brazil's Genolyptus project, which focuses on understanding the genome of Eucalyptus trees, is described by the FAO as "cutting edge" biotechnology research.The FAO says that, apart from Kenya and South Africa, most African countries are far less advanced in forest biotechnology than Asian and Latin American nations.