larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next
by Larry

June, 2015

Super Fast Growing Forests

When Val and I bought our current house, 29 years ago, it came with a 0.3 acre lot that had just three trees. Most of the area was bare of either grass or trees, and we thought this less than ideal. Over the next couple or three years, we gathered saplings when out kayaking in out of the way bayous and planted over 100 new trees on our property. Most were slow growing ones and would not make a difference for some time. So we sought fast growers, such as Chinese Parasol Trees, and were pleased when squirrels and birds also brought us quick height producers like Chinaberry trees or Chinese tallow trees. The common theme here seems to be China, and that is appropriate, for in its quest to reforest vast areas of that nation, the Chinese have now begun very fast growing forests. Though bamboo (really a kind of grass, yet not recommended for mowing on one's day off) and its forests can actually grow the fastest, up to 36 inches a day, it is not so good for the timber industry or places to roost for all sorts of bird varieties as the more leisurely but still fast growing poplars or the Paulownia tomentosa, a Chinese tree variety that shoots upward at up to 20 feet a year at first.

The Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) (Wikipedia)
As the world has been radically changing with industrialization, urbanization, global warming, pollution, desertification, etc., forests have been declining in a major way, adding to our difficulties, for healthy trees and their forests provide great habitat for lots and lots of other things besides just the arbors, and they help hold the earth together, stop deserts from expanding, limit flooding, keep greenhouse gases more in check, reduce runoff, cool off the biosphere, hold more moisture in the soil, give us medicines and industrial products, light our fireplaces, and are pretty good places to play, hike, camp, and just kind of hang out and heal. So maybe, all things considered, it is not such a bad thing if ways could be found to reforest great swaths of our gradually more denuded planet in a relatively short amount of time.

Perhaps with such considerations in mind, Chinese biologists have genetically engineered trees that will grow even faster, be more disease resistant, produce chemicals that are desirable, and so forth. Ironically, such simple seeming solutions come with their own sets of difficulties. Genetically engineered (GE) fast growing forests, for instance, tend to be more monoculture, exhibiting far less diversity of flora or fauna, than naturally occurring, slower growing tree landscapes. Thus, in the shadows of GE forests rare species are becoming even more scarce, perhaps not a good trend in a world that is already seeing the most rapid increase in extinctions since the asteroid considered directly or indirectly responsible for the end of dinosaurs.

The concept appears a good one, encouraging trees' rapid growth where they have been lost, yet maybe in this case, as with the tortoise and the hare, slow is beautiful. Additional problems with genetically modified trees have occurred. Their branches and trunks tend to break more easily than with normal trees and particularly more than for slow growing hardwoods. So, structures nearby can be readily damaged by such trees during or following strong winds. Also, just like weeds that grow and easily spread faster than more preferred plants, GE forests can crowd out desirable natural tree varieties along with the wide assortment of plants and animals that had called their forests home. Capitalist proponents of GE tree plantations have engaged in land grab tactics, displacing local economies and human populations in quests for more and more space for profitable timber production and harvesting. Disease resistant trees may give rise to heartier insects that then can go on to endanger natural forests. People are discovering previously unknown allergies to the pollen of GE trees. Monarch butterflies may be more vulnerable to milkweed sprinkled with the wind-borne pollen from GE forests. In third world countries, GE trees are often burned as fuel or to clear areas for agriculture, and smoke pollution has increased, hurting tourism, the health of human and fauna communities, and native flora species. Touting the advantages of biomass sources of energy over mined energy resources, corporations have become great tree pellet producers, with net decreases in other means of livelihood in affected regions. There is hazard too that the pollen of GE trees will cross-fertilize with natural trees, having unforeseen results that could be deleterious to fruit tree orchards, insect resistance, the strength of stands of trees, or their utility for timber production.

It is likely that super fast growing trees and trees with other GE characteristics will continue to be approved for tree plantations around the world. They can potentially offer enough benefits in certain circumstances and enough financial incentive in others that they will be a permanent part of the biosphere. Hopefully efforts will also progress apace to limit the larger environmental and economic harm they can do. As Bernd Heinrich said, "Planting tree plantations is permanent deforestation...The extensive planting of just one exotic species removes thousands of native species." (Henrich, B. 2009. The Trees in My Forest. HarperCollins.) This must be at least doubly true for the plantations of genetically modified trees.

Primary sources:

Genetically Engineered Trees - The New Frontier of Biotechnology. in Center for Food Safety, September, 2013.

Paulownia. in Wikipedia, last updated in March, 2012.

larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next