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Genetically modified trees arrive in U.S. forests

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The sun peaks through a canopy of trees in a forest.

Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images

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A San Francisco biotech company has planted genetically modified poplar trees in Georgia that are designed to suck up more carbon dioxide from the air than regular trees. The company, Living Carbon, intends for these trees to be be a large-scale solution to climate change, but this is still early going.

Gabriel Popkin is a science and environment journalist who recently wrote a story about this for The New York Times. He spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host Sabri Ben-Achour and the following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sabri Ben-Achour: So first off, what is the science behind these trees? How do they change them to make them better at taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere?

Gabriel Popkin: You might be surprised to learn that photosynthesis is a pretty inefficient process. And so lots of scientists have thought over the years about how to make it more efficient. What the scientists at this company, Living Carbon, did, they actually borrowed sort of genetic hack from another scientist at the University of Illinois. That scientist had made tobacco plants more efficient at photosynthesizing pretty much by introducing a couple of genes from other plants, that enabled the tobacco plants to — instead of kind of create this toxic waste product that the plant then needed to use energy to get rid of, to sort of recycle the waste product back into the photosynthesis process in a way that ended up creating more useful energy for the plant. And the Living Carbon scientists pretty much took the same idea and put it into a tree.

Ben-Achour: How much of a dent could they put in the world’s carbon emissions?

Popkin: So one interesting thing to me about this story is that the company has really only put out one paper and it’s not even a peer-reviewed paper. It’s what it’s called a preprint, which means they just kind of wrote a paper, put it up there on the internet and said, “Here it is, take a look.” And in that paper, they reported on about five months of growth in a greenhouse where their genetically engineered trees, some of them grew up to 50% faster than non-engineered trees. But I think it’s really important to keep in mind that this is just a greenhouse trial. And most scientists who work for universities, places like that, they would really want to see a field trial where you plant the trees out in the open, grow them for several years and then come back and measure them, and see if they’ve grown at all faster than a control tree that’s not engineered. And there is a field trial like that ongoing, but no data has been reported from that trial. So I think, at this point, we really can’t say how much, if any, carbon dioxide these trees will be able to draw down from the atmosphere.

Ben-Achour: You know, obviously, there’s a concern about engineered genes getting out into the world. What’s the risk in this situation?

Popkin: So that sort of depends who you ask. The company has some arguments that the risk is low. They are planting only trees that have been cloned, all these trees are female. So there’s not going to be pollen from these trees blowing around into the forest. But they could intercept pollen from native trees nearby. But it turns out that this sort of specific type of poplar tree that they’re using, which is a hybrid between two other species, it doesn’t breed with the native, at least the most common sort of native poplar trees that grow in the Southeast, which is where these engineered poplars have been planted.

So I think that, at least for now, for what they’ve done so far, that the probability of escape into the wild is is pretty low. That said, I will say there is at least one environmental group that has expressed concern about these genetically engineered trees. And at least part of their concern is that they could be grown in big sort of plantations that displace more natural forests of native species.

Ben-Achour: One other criticism has been that these trees, this company, have been able to speed through regulations. Why is that? How did they get through so fast?

Popkin: It was surprising to me. I thought that any GMO had to go through a regulatory process, but it turns out that there was a way that I think doesn’t exist anymore. But until quite recently, you could sort of ask the USDA, “Am I regulated?” And the USDA might say, “No, you’re not regulated.” And in that case, you can take your genetically modified organism and start planting it wherever you want.

And it has to do with a number of factors. But, basically, what the USDA is looking at is, are you creating something that could harm other plants, or that could become a pest in some way or another? And in this case, they determined that the genetically engineered poplar tree was not going to become a pest. It only has genes from other plants. These genes don’t express any sort of herbicide, pesticide. It also has to do with this specific sort of method of genetic engineering that the company used. And for all those reasons, the USDA said, “OK, you’re not regulated.” And that kind of gave the company the go ahead to start planting.

The other thing the company has is a lot of money. There have been plenty of other genetically engineered plants and trees that have been created over the years, often by university researchers or kind of forestry companies. But often times these things don’t actually find a market.

Ben-Achour: Right, this company has raised $36 million. I just wonder what the business model is? Is this a climate change thing, or is this a timber industry improvement thing?

Popkin: I think it’s both. It’s certainly a climate change thing. That’s sort of the reason this company exists is that they want to create trees that will take up carbon dioxide very quickly, faster than the trees that exist right now. But I think there’s a recognition that if you just focus only on that, and you don’t create something that’s also got commercial value, that it’s going to be really hard to get people to plant that tree.

And the commercial timber industry is one of the main sort of entities that plants lots of trees, so they’re trying to create trees that will be attractive to the kinds of people who grow trees. One, you can sell trees to people who plant trees and two, they hope to make money off of carbon offsets: In other words, other entities would potentially pay for the carbon that’s being sequestered, not the wood itself. Now, I think you’re probably well aware that these carbon offsets have come around under a lot of criticism lately. And I think, in my mind, the whole future of that industry has a lot of questions swirling around it right now. So I don’t know if that’s going to pan out or not, but I think that that’s certainly part of the company’s thinking.

Ben-Achour: The U.S. seems to have a somewhat conflicted relationship with genetically modified organisms. It’s a science that people are sometimes afraid of. I was looking at a Pew poll showing 38% of people thought they were unsafe, 27% thought they were safe. But nonetheless, they’re quite widespread in certain crops. Is the appetite for genetically modified plants changing, do you think?

Popkin: I think that’s a really interesting question. I don’t have any hard data on this. But I think the answer is yes, I think that, compared to say, 20 years ago, public acceptance of genetically modified organisms has almost certainly gone up. It’s not to say that all of us want to go out to the grocery store and buy a bright, shiny red, genetically engineered apple and eat that or feed it to our families.

But I think, you know, over time, genetically modified crops have made their way into a lot of our food. We’ve all been eating it for decades, we’re obviously not all getting horribly sick. So I think there’s maybe a recognition that some of the fears around GMOs have not come to pass.

I think it’s interesting how that’s going to sort of translate to trees. There’s been one other genetically engineered tree that has gotten a lot of attention. And that’s the chestnut tree. In this case, it’s a tree that has been engineered to be resistant to a certain type of blight that wiped out a really important native tree in the eastern U.S. about 100 years ago. So the university scientists have created a genetically engineered chestnut that is supposed to be blight resistant, and it’s gotten a lot of public support, because I think people really liked the idea of a beloved native tree coming back.

It’s also gotten some resistance. There’s one fairly small environmental group out there that really focuses on opposing genetically engineered trees. And they’ve certainly got some kind of following behind them. I do feel like the Greenpeaces of the world have kind of kept their hands off of this one. They don’t seem to really be focusing on it. And I think that has led to the wider public also — I’m just not seeing a big groundswell of opposition to genetically engineered trees, among the wider public. But, this is a pretty new thing. I think most of the public is not yet aware of it. And so, we’re gonna have to see how the public responds.

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