Copyright 2002
Freedom Magazines International, Inc. Latin Trade
May, 2002
LENGTH: 1247 words
HEADLINE: Here Come the Super Trees
BYLINE: Casey Woods * Santiago, Chile
As legislators in Brazil engage in screaming matches over the steady
of genetically modified corn into their fields from nearby Argentina, a
Chilean joint venture is fast on its way to producingand exporting the
world's first genetically modified tree. The idea follows what biotech firms already have done around the world
corn, potatoes and soybeans. Using Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a
naturally occurring soil bacterium that kills pests if inserted into
plants, researchers at Genfor in Chile's rainy southern forests say they
near to producing a commercially viable Bt tree. Genfor believes the tree will withstand the European shoot-tip moth, a
endemic to Chilean forests. The moth burrows into the seedlings of
pine, a tree type that makes up 80% of the country's forest plantations.
moth's larvae cause the main stem of the sapling to break, leaving timber
companies with a stunted bush instead of a healthy tree. The shoot-tip
ruins about 30% of the harvest when it goes untreated, and 10% even with
treatment, according to Chile's National Forestry Corp. Chile's foresters
currently spend US$3 million annually to control the moths through the
release of wasps that prey on the larvae. Genfor says it has successfully
implanted seedlings with the Bt protein, which kills moth larvae before
can do damage. The company predicts that its insect-resistant pine will
ready for the market in 2008. "My hunch is that the Chileans will be the first to market a transgenic
tree," says David Duncan, former head of global forestry at Monsanto.
have the tightest focus of anyone and, just as important, they have a
government relationship and infrastructure that will be most conducive to
supporting a commercial deployment of such a tree." The moth was the impetus that led to Genfor's creation. In 1997,
Biogenetics, a joint venture of U.S. biotechnology company Interlink and
Chilean technology think tank Fundacion Chile, began looking for ways to
address the problem. Canadian biotech company Cellfor entered the picture
when Biogenetics approached it about acquiring an elite cloning
called somatic embriogenesis. Instead of a purchase, a new joint venture was formed: Genfor, Latin
America's first and so far only biotechnology company dedicated solely to
forestry. Fast forward. During the cloning process, Genfor harvests immature seeds
then generates tissue cultures from them, creating the source of an
number of future plants. The tissue cultures are then frozen, allowing
researchers to test the material and return for the most valuable
an important factor in tree research, where testing times are long
of slow growth rates. "Trees begin producing mature seeds only after seven or eight years, and
even then they produce a limited amount," says Mike Moynihan, Genfor's
research vice president. "With this technology, I can produce millions of
plants from a single seed and without the wait." Moynihan figures his
40-year research cycle has sped up to 10 years, thanks to cloning. He
projects a savings of $200 per hectareabout $66 million a year to Chile's
forestry businessbased on boosted productivity and improved seedling
quality. Beyond the possibility of genetic modification that this process
somatic embriogenesis speeds up non-transgenic improvements methods, such
selection and later multiplication of the finest plants. The cloning
technology, paired with the superior genetic material, is Genfor's
policy against the long years required to develop a transgenic tree. "Commercial deployment of any of our transgenic plants is at least six
away, so as a company we need to develop a money-making product in the
meanwhile," says Genfor's head of operations, Juan Carlos Carmona. "That
product is elite clones produced by somatic embriogenesis." In its first step towards that strategy, Genfor has imported the finest
genetically improved trees from New Zealand, Chile's main competitor in
production of Radiata pine. Genfor has also established research
with Chilean forestry industry giants Arauco and Mininco, the companies
provide Genfor with their top specimens. Genfor supplies the technology
improve them and earns the right to market the results of the research. Genfor intends to begin marketing the clones in 2005, but are Chilean
foresters ready to pay more for super seedlings? Major forestry
which are better informed consumers, will buy in, says Victor Sierra,
of tree improvement and biotechnology for Mininco. Small property owners,
those planting 200 hectares a year, won't pay a premium, Sierra says,
because they " don't yet have an understanding that the new product will
bring a bigger return." Pulp fiction? Even more significant than Genfor's insect resistance
are its joint efforts with Cellfor to raise the level of cellulose and
modify lignin in Radiata and Loblolly pine, key traits to Chile's
cellulose pulp production. Lignin is an element that must be removed to
paper; its removal is the most expensive and environmentally damaging
of pulp production because of the massive amounts of chemicals used. U.S.
pulp producers alone spend $24 billion annually on that process. The joint research in Cellfor's Canadian lab achieved a 20% cellulose
increase in poplar and is now transferring that experience to the pine
species. By 2003, concrete results are expected. Because Loblolly is
extensively in Argentina and Brazil [as well as the southern United
the project will be Genfor's entry into its larger target market of South
America. For now, though, simply conquering the shoot-tip moth in Chile "would be
great contribution," says Mininco's Sierra. "The level of technology in
Chilean industry is low, and we aren't competitive from the tech point of
view with any of the countries that compete in the same market. Genfor is
already changing that." Latin America's Fitful History with Transgenic Trees
1995    Monsanto came to the forestry biotech party and then left early.
1995, it produced a herbicide-resistant eucalyptus in Brazil. "We
that the modification would cut weed-control costs in half and would
increase final yield by 10%," says David Duncan, the company's former
of global forestry. Monsanto ended its forestry program in 1999 after
reaching the field trial stage, deciding instead to focus its efforts on
food crops. 1998  In 1998, Shell Oil developed a herbicide-resistant eucalyptus in
Uruguay. Per a government agreement, the plants were burned after one
Shell then dropped its biotech program for economic reasons, although
opinion was a factor. "It was a stage when there was an extremely bad
reaction to the technology, and I think many companies were very wary at
that point," says Stuart Christie, Shell's forestry technology manager
South America. NOW
Brazil's Aracruz wants to alter eucalyptus to increase pulp. Commercial
cultivation of genetically modified plants is illegal in Brazil, although
Aracruz's tree improvement manager, Fernando Bertolucci, is optimistic.
believe that time is on our side in this case. We're not talking about
year, we're talking about six to eight years down the road," he says. "We
expect that by then people will be more open to this new technology."
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