The media in New Zealand briefly covered the destruction of a trial with genetically modified pines (Pinus radiata D. Don, erectile vulgar name Radiata pine, treatment Monterey pine) near Rotorua. This is not the first time that Luddites destroy a trial, case ignoring that they have been established following regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. Most people have discussed this pseudo-religious vandalism either from the wasting resources (money, more importantly time, delays on publication for scientists, etc) or from the criminal activity points of view.
I will discuss something slightly different, when would we plant genetically modified trees?
Some background first
In New Zealand, plantations of forests trees are established by the private sector (mostly forest companies and small growers–usually farmers). Most of the stock planted in the country has some degree of (traditional) breeding, and it ranges from seed mixes with a large numbers of parents to the deployment of genetically identical clones. The higher the degree of improvement the most likely is that tree deployment involves a small number of highly selected genotypes. Overall, most tree plantations are based on open-pollinated seed with a modest degree of genetic improvement, which is much more genetically diverse than most agricultural crops. In contrast, agricultural crops tend to deploy named clonal varieties which is what we buy in supermarkets: Gold kiwifruit, Gala apples, Nadine potatoes, etc.
Stating the obvious, tree and agricultural growers will pay more for genetic material if they have the expectation that the seeds, cuttings, tubers, etc are going to provide higher quantity and/or quality of products which will pay for the extra expense. Here we can see a big difference between people growing trees and annual/short rotation crops: there is a large lag between tree establishment and income coming from the trees, which means that when one runs a discounted cash flow analysis to estimate profitability:
- Income is in the distant future (say 25-30 years) and are heavily discounted.
- Establishment costs, which include buying the genetic material, are not discounted because they happen right now.
Unsurprisingly, growers want to reduce establishment costs as much as they can and remember that the cost of trees is an important component. This means that most people planting trees will go for cheaper, low level of genetic improvement trees (often seedlings), unless they are convinced that they can recover the extra expense with more improved trees (usually clones, which cost at least double than seedlings).
What’s the relationship with genetic modification?
Modification of any organism is an expensive process, which means that:
- One would only modify individuals with an outstanding genetic background; i.e. start with a good genotype to end up with a great one.
- Successful modifications will be clonally propagated to scale up the modification, driving down unit cost.
Thus, we have a combination of very good genotypes plus clonal propagation plus no discounting, which would make establishment costs very high (although no impossible). There is a second element that, at least for now, would delay adoption. Most large forest growers will have some type of product certification, which establishes that the grower is using good forestry, environmental and social practices. Think of it as a sticker that says the producer of this piece of wood is a good guy, so please feel confident about buying this product; that is, this sticker is part of a marketing strategy. Currently some forest certification organizations do not accept the use of genetically modified organisms (e.g. Forest Certification Council, PDF of GMO policy).
This does not mean that it is not financially possible to plant genetically modified trees. For once, modification costs would reduce with economies of scale (as for most biotechnologies), and one of the reasons we don’t have these economies is the political pressure by almost-religious zealots against GMO, which make people scared about being first to plant GM trees/plants. Another option is to change the GMO policy for some certification agencies or, relying on other certification organizations that do accept GMOs. Each individual forest company would have to evaluate the trade-offs of the certification decision, as they do not work as a block.
A simple scenario
Roughly 80% percent of the forest plantations in New Zealand correspond to radiata pine. Now imagine that we face a very destructive pest or disease that has the potential to severely damage the survival/growth of the trees. I know that it would take us a long time (decades?) to breed trees resistant to this problem. I also know that the GM crowd could insert several disease resistance genes and silence flowering, so we don’t have reproduction of modified trees. Would you support the use of genetic modification to save one of the largest industries of the country? I would.
However, before using the technology I would like to have access to data from trials growing in New Zealand conditions. The destruction of trials makes extremely difficult to make informed decisions and this is the worst crime. This people are not just destroying trees but damaging our ability to properly make decisions as a society, evaluating the pros and cons of our activities.
P.S. These are just my personal musings about the subject and do not represent the views of the forest companies, the university or anyone else. I do not work on genetic modification, but I am a quantitative geneticist & tree breeder.
P.S.2. While I do not work on genetic modification—so I’d struggle to call that crowd ‘colleagues’—I support researchers on that topic in their effort to properly evaluate the performance of genetically modified trees.