Wouldn’t it be great to have Christmas trees that didn’t shed their needles?
Now that Christmas is over, our trees are really starting to dry out. After we take down our ornaments and move the tree out, our vacuum cleaners are bound to get a workout.
To be sure, we already have trees that don’t shed needles. They’re called artificial trees. But what about a version of the real kind that isn’t nearly so messy?
Perhaps biotechnology will offer that choice. This exhilarating field of science is on the verge of changing the way we think about forest products, as well as just about everything else that grows.
Crop farmers know how important GM plants have become to conventional agriculture: More than half of the corn and cotton and virtually all of the soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified.
In the future, many of the trees that are transformed into consumer products–paper for our printers, boards for our homes, and Christmas trees for Santa–also could benefit from biotechnology.
The Canadian Forest Service has experimented with trees that contain the same core traits as the familiar GM crops of soybeans, corn, and cotton: Almost ten years ago, it planted a group of poplars to demonstrate the feasibility of the concept, and in 2000 it began to grow another variety that contains the very same Bt ingredient that has revolutionized agriculture around the world.
We’re a long way from commercialized GM trees, but it isn’t hard to imagine the possibilities. Scientists at Michigan Tech have experimented with trees that are specifically designed to produce qualities that are desirable in the manufacture of paper. Environmentalists should celebrate: It means more paper from fewer trees.
Researchers also have investigated the possibility of creating trees that resist Dutch elm disease. Yet another project is looking into the ability of GM trees to suck up hazardous chemicals through their roots–an ingenious way to clean up toxic sites.
These may sound like exotic applications, but biotechnology is turning science fiction into science fact. In recent weeks, we’ve seen reports on genetically modified bacteria that literally eat cancerous tumors and produce a protein that makes cancer patients more likely to respond to medical therapies.
Scientists are also on the verge of developing allergen-free peanuts–a boon to many people, from those who suffer from this acute malady to school-room mothers who plan parties for first-grade classrooms.
Researchers at Texas A&M are trying to invent edible cottonseeds. “If cottonseed were safe for human consumption, the 44 million metric tons of cottonseed the world produces each year could provide the total protein requirement for a half-billion people,” says one member of the team behind this innovation.
Edible cottonseed is apparently still at least a decade away from anything even remotely resembling a widespread application–as are so many of these promising products. The science is far from perfected, and it will have to win regulatory approval before commercialization.
Many advances in crop biotechnology will be comparatively mundane. Some seed researchers believe that U.S. corn yields will more than double over the next couple of decades, from 163 bushels per acre this year to 350 per acre in 2030. This has enormous implications for the price of food. Because much of this corn presumably will be turned into ethanol, it also has implications for the price of fuel and America’s energy independence.
It would take a true Grinch to oppose all of this. Unfortunately, there are plenty of Grinches out there who would like nothing better than to rob us of biotechnology’s promise: For the most part, they are anti-scientific know-nothings who respond emotionally rather than intellectually to the issue.
In the classic Dr. Seuss story about the Grinch, of course, the villain has a change of heart when he comes to understand the true meaning of Christmas. Perhaps the same thing will happen to anti-biotech activists in the years ahead, as some of these amazing new technologies come on line.
Personally, I don’t need any convincing. But I do want a Christmas tree that doesn’t shed needles. I hope that somewhere a biotech expert is already trying to find a solution.
Until then, I’ll be dreaming of GM Christmas.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade and Technology.