Super trees: The latest in genetic engineering
A South Carolina biotech firm re-engineers trees to make them grow faster and cleaner, says Fortune's Marc Gunther.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- In 1913, the New Jersey poet and critic Joyce Kilmer wrote "Trees," a poem which concludes with this simple rhyme:
"Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree."
It may be that only God can make a tree. But only man, and modern biotechnology, can make super trees - trees that have been genetically engineered to grow faster, produce more wood on less land, thrive in unfamiliar climates and be processed more easily into wood or paper once they are cut down.
Super trees are the business of ArborGen, a South Carolina company that says improving the genetic makeup of purpose-grown trees - that is, trees grown for paper, wood or biofuels - will help conserve "native forests in all their diversity and complexity for future generations."
Yes, ArborGen, like so many companies today, is painting itself green - although it has run into a buzzsaw of criticism from the likes of the Sierra Club.
"Genetically engineered trees pose unpredictable and unnecessary threats to the environment, biodiversity and human health," says the Stop GE Trees Campaign, an alliance of environmental groups which is based in the village of Hinesburg, Vermont.
We'll hear from the, er, tree-huggers, in a minute but first a bit about ArborGen. Formed in 2000, ArborGen is a joint venture of three forest products companies, International Paper (Charts, Fortune 500), MeadWestvaco (Charts, Fortune 500) and New Zealand-based Rubicon.
Last year, the company began selling its first commercial product, Loblolly pine seedlings that have been bred to produce 30 to 40 percent more lumber than the native, unimproved pine. They are not genetically engineered but produced through natural selection and then cloned. Top-performing trees, selected for straightness, fewer branches or knots or faster growth are mass produced into seedlings for customers.
ArborGen is also working on a freeze-tolerant Eucalyptus, a reduced-lignin Eucalyptus and faster-growing Aspen. Reducing lignin, a chemical compound which is removed from pulp before it is made into paper, means using fewer chemicals and less energy during processing.
All this, says ArborGen CEO Barbara Wells, means that land can be used more efficiently, saving native forests. "Our purpose is more wood, less land," says Wells, who has a PhD in agronomy and 18 years of experience at Monsanto, a leading biotech company.
The federal government's push for biofuels is a boost to Arborgen. The freeze-tolerant, fast-growing Eucalyptus, for example, could become a source for the production of ethanol, which burns cleaner than gasoline and reduces the U.S.'s dependence on foreign oil. Some of the trees grow 20-25 feet per year, and produce high quality fiber. "It is truly a biomass machine," Wells says.
ArborGen also belongs to a group of researchers, companies and universities that received a $125 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for a bioenergy research center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, with the goal of developing new ways to produce biofuels.
Other companies and scientists also want to improve trees. After a virus wiped out a wide swath of Hawaii's papaya industry in the 1990s, trees engineered to resist the virus helped restore the business. Synthetic Genomics, a Maryland firm founded by J. Craig Venter (of human genome project fame), recently announced a deal with a Malaysian palm oil plantation company to analyze the genome of the palm tree that produces oil. Forest scientists at Oregon State University have used genetic engineering to manipulate the height of poplar trees, opening the door to new products for the nursery industry.
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Rainforest Action Network and Forest Ethics, don't like any of this. They argue, among other things, that pollen from the genetically modified trees could escape into the wild and wreak havoc with forest ecosystems.
"We barely understand how forest ecosystems work, anyway," says Anne Petermann of Stop GE Trees and the Global Justice Ecology program. "When you throw a wildcard in there, like a genetically engineered tree, who knows how far those impacts are going to ripple?"
She also says that tree plantations, whether engineered or not, usually displace agricultural land, native forests or grasslands, all of which are better for the earth and for local communities.