Commentary: Anti-biotech public might say let the trees die

If people are told the only way to save different varieties of trees in both urban and forest settings is the use of biotechnology, will the national public accept the science of altering "natural" varieties and species.

Would people rather have varieties disappear—become extinct—because of exotic pests and diseases coming into the U.S.?

The unfounded fright of biotech crops and genetically modified ingredients in food makes me think too many people would say let the trees die without thinking long-term about the repercussions. The anti-GM crops public claim they are thinking long term about possible negative effects to themselves, but they pick and choose what they want to think long-term about.

The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers are able to introduce genetic biotechnology as a potential means to preserve forests. The UF/IFAS researchers are making presentations about genetic biotechnology and hosting a symposium at a national conference in Washington, D.C., this week.

Jiri Hulcr, an assistant professor in the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation, and one of his doctoral students, Caroline Storer, are hosting the symposium at the North American Forest Insect Work Conference May 31 to June 3. Alison Adams, an assistant professor in forest resources and conservation, will be making a presentation speaking about public trust and genetic modification technology.

"Exploring the use of biotechnology in tree health protection is important to us, because we are increasingly running out of other options," Hulcr said.

He sees the genetic technology option as needing disseminated as an "innovative solutions to maintain tree health."

Additionally, he said: "Trees and forests provide jobs and benefits for everyone. Yet, around city neighborhoods and rural forests, anyone can witness the diminishing health of trees. The culprit is exotic pests and diseases. Forget pollution or drought: It is destructive tree diseases and pests—imported by overseas travelers or business people—that are nearly eliminating some tree species from our forests and orchards."

Hulcr said he and his team focus on these emerging threats, and they're working with tree health scientists nationwide to find ways to prevent or reverse the damage that global travel and commerce have caused.

"There is now an incredible selection of genetic tools that can be used to help trees defend themselves," Hulcr said. "These new technologies may be among the few viable tools that are available to protect our nation's forests."