Building a Better Tree
Genetic Engineering and Fiber Farming
in Oregon and Washington
W. Scott Prudham
The development of technology, and thus the social development it implies, is as much determined by the breadth of vision that informs it, and the particular notions of social order to which it is bound, as by the mechanical relations between things and the physical laws of nature.
David Noble, America by Design, 1977
On the arid plains of eastern Washington and Oregon, next to the placid Columbia River, tens of thousands of acres of hybrid cottonwoods grow in even rows, supplying fiber to nearby paper mills. Grown on a seven-year rotation, hand planted in blocks of six hundred clones per acre, watered by drip irrigation, and cultivated under chemical control, the plantations are among the most intensively managed anywhere in the world. Two hundred and fifty miles down river, in Corvallis, researchers at Oregon State University's Tree Genetic Engineering Research Cooperative (TGERC) have been developing genetically engineered (GE) trees for use in the plantations since 1995. Several varieties are now in field trials. Should they be approved for commercial deployment and planted on the banks of the Columbia, they would become the first GE trees to be used in commercial forestry in the United States.
Though less contentious in the public eye than GE food crops have become, commercial GE trees also raise numerous concerns. These include the risk of gene transfer to wild trees and other species; the potential for consolidation of industrial and scientific forestry; and the political and ethical issues raised by proprietary control over life forms (Kenney 1998; Kevles 1998; May 1998; Mullin and Bertrand 1998). These concerns cast in relief the potential importance of commercial GE tree cultivation and the sense that by embracing the new biotechnology, industrial forestry is on the brink of a socially and environmentally significant transition.
To assess this transition, we must consider the social origins of commer-