Transgenic trees are being field-tested in 17 countries, including Australia, France, Chile, and Indonesia. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued permits for more than 300 trials since 1987.
The Promise: Timber companies are eager to create trees that grow faster and straighter and require fewer chemicals and less energy to pulp. Doing so, they argue, could also reduce their industry’s reliance on logging national forests and other treasured areas. Trees could be engineered to grow in polluted landfills and absorb poisons, or even be designed to capture more carbon dioxide, diminishing global warming. Scientists are also using genetic-engineering techniques to bring the American chestnut back to the eastern United States, where its population was decimated by the imported chestnut-blight fungus in the late 1930s.
The Peril: A tree plantation doesn’t carry out the same ecological functions as a diverse natural forest. One type of “designer tree” being developed by Shell and Monsanto would grow faster--and produce more timber--because it would be devoid of seeds, flowers, pollen, and fruits. That’s good for the corporate bottom line, but not the food chain. Genetically engineered trees that still do produce pollen could cross with native varieties, altering forest ecosystems for miles around. Since trees take up to 100 years to mature, many critics argue that it is essentially impossible to foresee the long-term effects.