Keeping Canada's Forests Pristine, But at What Cos
Genetically Modified Trees Could Grow more Wood and Preserve more Wildland
February 3, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on farming, farm policy and related agricultural issues.
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-A Canadian named Lawrence Solomon thinks his fellow environmentalists have made a huge mistake in accepting too little of the country's land area as reserved wilderness.
"In any rational world...overwhelming expanse of the country's resources would be preserved for its natural beauty," Solomon wrote in the National Post.
Solomon announced Canada's wealth was in its urban economy, declaring "our forests, mountains, lakes and rivers are usually worth far less as board-feet of timber and storage ponds for mine tailings than as objects of splendor."
Canada is currently one of the world's most sparsely populated countries. It has much of the world's temperate forest, 1.9 million square miles of forestland, covering the vast subarctic plateau that stretches from Newfoundland to the Yukon and its huge Western mountain ranges.
For all the beauty of resorts like Banff and Lake Louise, few people visit much of Canada's forestland. Most are a long way from Canada's cities. Solomon's cherished forests also have Arctic winters and summers plagued by mosquitoes and black flies.
In terms of preserving biodiversity, Canada's forests aren't much, besides a few "trophy" animals like the grizzly and polar bears, the elk and the moose.
It has huge numbers of magnificent evergreen trees. But the whole of North America has fewer wild species than five square miles of tropical forest. Few of them are threatened, let alone endangered.
Speaking of forests in danger, we learn from the Environmental News Network that the tropical forests on the island of Borneo are at urgent risk. This island, five times the size of England, is being deforested by loggers. The important canopy trees are disappearing, even within the island's national parks.
Wild boars, orangutans, parakeets and other creatures displaced by the logging are eating the tree seeds, preventing new seedlings from springing up.
The real problem in both cases is that the Northern Hemisphere isn't growing enough trees that it's willing to harvest for lumber and paper.
Affluent consumers are addicted to newspapers, e-mail printouts and nice houses. Meanwhile, Third World residents yearn for the same wood- consuming lifestyles and are gaining the incomes to afford them.
The forest product demand that's already driving tropical deforestation will increase tenfold by 2050. That's why researchers are experimenting with genetically engineered trees that would resist pests and produce more wood an acre.
Tree plantations already produce up to 15 times more wood an acre than wild forests, minimizing the amount of forestland that requires logging. Biotech trees could allow us to log even less land.
Unfortunately, activists with more energy than wisdom are trying to cripple the gene-modified tree experiments. The Worldwide Fund for Nature environmental group condemns "Frankentrees," but scientists at a recent meeting of the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations endorsed gene-modification in forestry as safe and important.
Steven Strauss of Oregon State, who co-authored their public statement, says biotech field trials are critically important to having more forests this century.
The problem for tropical forests has gotten worse since the United States put much of its Pacific Northwest forests off-limits to logging.
Thanks in large part to higher yields from technology advances, Canada contains about 12 percent more forest than it did 20 years ago. Thanks to better forest management, they also have many more trees an acre. And thanks to better sawmills and adhesives, each tree felled produces at least five times more usable paper and wood products than it did in 1950.
But the world will cut some forests, somewhere. And it should. Trees are one of our most important renewable resources. If we don't build houses out of wood, many will be built from more polluting materials such as steel and concrete.
Some of those trees should be cut in Canada. If Canada and the United States do not cut trees, then trees will be cut in Siberia, where they will take centuries to regrow. Or they'll be cut in tropical countries where the forests contain thousands of wildlife species in every square mile.
The environmental movement gained political power because it promised to "think globally and act locally." Or perhaps Canadian intellectuals don't really care about preserving the world environment, just the view from their own backyard.
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.