Genetic Debate Sprouts over Trees
Gribbin, August, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Byline: August Gribbin
Roasting chestnuts on an open fire - it's a vanished Yuletide tradition that geneticists are making possible once more. And therein lie the seeds of debate.
Scientists working in the laboratories of academe and industry are altering the genetic makeup of trees to create super specimens that will grow faster, devour pollutants and resist disease, drought and insect pests.
Some environmentalists, however, object that the researchers are "playing God" with trees and taking risks that could lead to "silent forests," devoid of small plants or birds.
"Genetic engineering challenges the conception of what is natural and raises the hackles of all sorts of people who want a wild landscape, not an engineered or modified one," says historian and author Char Miller of Trinity University in San Antonio.
Mr. Miller writes about the environmental movements and people's relationships with nature. He says in an interview:
"This is a hot issue. At Michigan Tech University a couple of weeks ago, they found two bombs outside the genetic engineering department. The bombs didn't explode. The timers were faulty.
"But why would people try to hinder the genetic research? They fear the manipulative power of science and the expertise that shapes the food we eat. They don't want geneticists to construct the aesthetics [of woodlands and forests] that we appreciate. The objection comes from the long-standing romantic sense that nature is best left untouched - we're looking at something that hits a cultural nerve when we talk of genetically engineering trees."
Although the tree-modifying issue is potentially volatile, it has received little public attention. To remedy that and to encourage debate on the issue, the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a nonpartisan public service group; the Society of American Foresters, a professional group; and the Ecological Society of America, a nonpartisan society of scientists, are sponsoring a conference in Atlanta this week.
In Atlanta, researchers and representatives of the lumber industry and environmental groups will gather to "showcase [their] diverse points of view" and inform the public, as a statement by the sponsors puts it.
What Mr. Miller calls the romantic and cultural aspects of the issue are especially at stake in scientists' work with the American chestnut and elm, and with the pines and firs that traditionally decorate homes during the Christmas season. …