APPROVAL, WITH controls, has been given to Scion to field test genetically modified radiata pine (Pinus radiata) in outdoor containment.
“Scion’s role for New Zealand is to scientifically assess the commercial potential of new technologies for forestry. Our application was a logical extension of the research we are currently conducting under previous approvals,” said group manager Bioproduct Development Elspeth MacRae, after Scion had gained approval from the Environment Risk Management Authority.
Field trials are designed to provide proof of concept in a contained outdoor site that is similar to a natural forestry setting. They are an intermediate stage between the production of genetically modified trees in the laboratory and commercial forest plantation.
“This approval allows our researchers to test genes for a range of traits that, if successful in the trials, may be used in the future to produce improved pine trees.
“We will be assessing traits that have the potential to directly benefit the forestry industry, such as wood density and stability, tree growth, biomass utilisation and reproductive development. Also, we will continue to check relevant environmental impacts during the trials,” said Dr MacRae.
The approval permits Scion to plant genetically modified Pinus radiata in a series of experiments over a 25-year period. Planting can only occur in a 4-hectare field test site on Scion’s Rotorua campus. The trees growing on the field test site must be killed by being cut down when they reach eight years of age or as soon as they begin to develop reproductive structures.
No pollen or seed will result from the field tests because ERMA’s controls require frequent inspections to identify male catkins or female cones soon after they begin to form. These immature structures must be removed within 24 hours of their detection and then destroyed.
“This approval allows us to continue the research necessary for New Zealand to make pragmatic decisions on the use of genetic options in the future.”
The global benefits of genetic modification science include:
Environmental benefits: Research that allows production of more and better timber and timber products from plantation forests helps alleviate pressure to log native forests. Genetic modification can be used to improve specific traits in trees that could lead to environmental benefits such as drought tolerance, increased carbon sequestration, or better options for the production of biofuels.
Forestry benefits: On a commercial scale, genetic modification can improve individual tree characteristics, including traits such as: pulpability, wood quality (e.g. strength, stiffness and density), increased carbon sequestration, herbicide resistance, pest and disease resistance, environmental stress tolerance (e.g. cold, drought), and reproductive function. The increased productivity of plantation forests can help meet rising global demand for fibre. Internationally, genetically modified crops have enabled significant reduction in the use of pesticides and demonstrated increased productivity and increased sustainability. Uptake of the technology in agriculture continues globally at a fast pace because of the benefits to growers, processors and consumers.
Scientific benefits: The results from Scion’s field trials will increase scientific understanding of the mechanisms of wood development and reproductive development, and how they can be modified to meet economic, social and environmental goals. Results from Scion’s trials will help the New Zealand public, the forest industry, and legislative and regulatory agencies to make decisions about the commercial use of genetic modification technology in forestry.
Economic benefits: New Zealand requires the development and application of science to remain competitive in the global marketplace, which is increasingly adopting genetic modification technologies. With an economy dependent on primary product exports, New Zealand relies on agricultural and forestry innovation to ensure its future economic competitiveness. Scion has developed a bioenergy scenario that shows how New Zealand could gain a long-term, sustainable alternative to imported transport fuels by establishing 1.8 million ha of energy forests on some of our marginal land. By 2035, Scion estimates that there will be a net gain to the New Zealand economy of $4.5 billion per year based on projected oil prices ($120-140/bbl). The scenario would reduce New Zealand’s total reliance on imported oil for energy by 60%. Genetic modification of trees for bioenergy has the potential to introduce greater gain or process improvements that will make bioenergy production more sustainable and economic.