Genetically Modified Trees to be Tested in Brazil

on Jun 4, 2012

FuturaGene Ltd., a UK-based biotechnological company, has won approval to proceed with a trial involving genetically modified eucalyptus trees in Brazil, Bloomberg reported last week. The goal of the forest trial is to boost yields of timber material used for biomass in power plants.

FuturaGene is owned by the Brazilian Suzano Papel e Celulose SA, which is the world’s second largest producer of eucalyptus pulp and is vying to become one of the leading global suppliers of renewable energy in the form of wood pellets for electricity generation. Company CEO Stanley Hirsch told Bloomberg that the goal is to plant genetically improved eucalyptus trees in the weeks to come, testing the effectiveness and safety of the new technology. FuturaGene also has plans to improve yields of poplar trees, and for the purpose it has established facilities in China, Brazil and Israel.

By inserting select genes into the trees, scientists hope to give timber yields a significant boost, thus, maximising wood capacity for electricity generation and gaining more material for the manufacturing of paper and pulp. Hirsch expressed hopes that once the trials are successfully completed and an approval is granted, the new technology – dubbed as the world’s most advanced for enhanced-yield purposes — would be available for commercial use by late 2015 to early 2016.!m[](/uploads/story/46/thumbs/eucalyptus_leaves_inline.png)

“This pioneering fourth trial is a key step toward the commercial deployment of our first plantation product,” Hirsch noted.
Lead researchers in the trial estimate that the genetically modified trees may be able to deliver about one million tons of wood pellets from about 38,000 hectares (93,900 acres) of timberland. This volume would be enough to power a 200-megawatt power station.

Similarly to the FuturaGene trial project, New Zealand’s Dryland Forest Initiative also aims to genetically enhance eucalyptus species. The goal of the programme is to make these species more resistant to harsh environmental conditions, such as droughts and erodible land. Hopes are that New Zealand would be able to compensate for a portion of the hardwoods imported each year, replacing them with durable domestically grown timber material.

Bloomberg cited the International Energy Association (IEA), which has expressed very optimistic views about the future for the biomass sector. It claims that out of all available renewable power sources on the market, biomass from wood and farm waste has the highest potential for growth. In fact, the IEA estimates that by 2050, biomass may provide around 21 percent of the world’s energy supply, reducing dependence on emission-intensive fossil fuels.
Some environmental organisations have expressed mixed feelings about the use of genetic engineering in the forestry sector. Greenpeace, for example, fears that genetically modifying food and non-food crops could lead to serious environmental damage. The World Wildlife Fund International also called for a moratorium on the use of genetic modification until it recently revised its position.
But according to the FuturaGene CEO, genetic modifications in trees offer no grounds for concern.
“Genetic-modified technology, if you look at it scientifically, is a vital sustainability tool that allows you to do more with less resource. The misperception is really damaging the ability to actually push these products into the market,” he said.