Monday, March 10, 2014

Save the Rainforest with Genetic Engineering

rainforest genetic engineering exotic wood marquetry plantation agriculture by Josef Spalenka

Everyone wants to "Save the Rainforest," but how can it be done most effectively? The current method of protecting ecologically and biologically diverse areas of the tropical rainforest is basically to convince governments to draw an imaginary fence around them, and protect what's inside the fence with a police force and the court system. Since the rainforest is still so vast, and the resources for policing its destruction are comparatively small, it is nearly impossible to protect all of the world's remaining rainforest from the constant nibbling of unlawful clearing by what are essentially small bands of rainforest "tree poachers."

Rather than using threat of criminal punishment, or campaigns of global shame and opprobrium, it is much more effective to change the economic incentives that drive the clearing of the rainforest. The first thing to realize is that people don't clear rainforest because they are stupid or evil or ignorant of its beauty (or because they have a blood feud with toucans). People clear rainforest because there are personal economic incentives to do so.

What are the main economic drivers for clearing the rainforest? One primary driver (particularly in Brazil) is to claim new land area for grazing cattle and raising agricultural crops, and the second primary driver is the harvesting of exotic wood species such as mahogany and teak for luxury export.

Much has been written on how to change the economic incentives for claiming forested land for cattle grazing and agriculture, such as convincing people globally to eat less beef, changing the tariffs on imports and exports to dis-incentivize the production of Brazilian beef and other agricultural products grown on former rainforest soil, and using technology to dramatically improve the efficiency of food production elsewhere so that it is impossible profitably produce food on the lower fertility soils of cleared rainforest. These are all important economic ideas, but I want to focus instead on alternatives to harvesting exotic trees for timber.

Supplying the luxury wood market with a cheaper alternative that fills the same essential need is the best way to reduce demand pressure on "the real thing."

Currently, valuable exotic wood grows sparsely and inaccessibly sprinkled throughout remote locations the forest, rather than in dense accessible clusters of the most valuable and prized trees. The most efficient way right now to select the few valuable logs from the rest of the lower-value surrounding greenery is to slash down all of it, and pick up the wheat from the chaff. I suggest that new exotic tree farming practices situated in less remote locations, combined with genetically modified exotic tree-stock that can grow well in regions that are not considered critical rainforest habitat, could meet the demand for the exotic wood market without threatening ecologically diverse protected areas.

Harvesting exotic wood species from untouched old-growth rainforest is extremely economically inefficient, and almost any alternative source would be cheaper. Exotic wood species did not evolve to grow as fast as biologically possible, because natural trees must always "hedge their bets" against temporary resource scarcity and devote nutrients towards defense mechanisms against competing species. There is no clear reason that the woods prized for bar-tops and luxurious conference room tables can only grow only in the poor soils of a rainforest, decorated and bejeweled with exotic parrots and iridescent insects. They could be cultivated and nurtured in a separately managed tree farm with a minimal number of symbiotic animal and insect species required for them to thrive. It seems reasonable to believe that a fast-growing, densely clustered "artificial" exotic tree crop could be engineered to have essentially the same hardness, color, and grain structure as the "natural" exotic wood it mimics.

Compared to our ancient experience with cultivating domesticated grain and vegetable crops, humans are currently just at the dawn of cultivating forest products for the purposes of renewable paper production and construction lumber. The spread of these practices from the abundant and well-known wood species of North America to the obscure and exotic wood species of the rainforests in South America, Africa, and Indonesia seems like a natural extension. Commercial teak plantations, for example, already exist in a few tropical regions and hopefully more exotic wood plantations are soon to follow.

Historic Georgetown, Colorado denuded of trees for use as fuel (top).
And Georgetown today with much of the local forest restored (bottom).

Some readers may be skeptical that such wicked things as big business and the machinations of the global industrial economy can actually prevent the destruction of sensitive ecological habitat, rather than being its primary cause. However, there is historical precedent for this. Many people don't realize, for example, that the forests of North America and Europe are on average thicker and denser today than they were a century ago. This was not primarily because of new regulations and new breakthroughs in arboreal police enforcement. It was because wood is no longer so useful as a fuel, and it has been largely replaced by more efficient and cheaper alternatives. The 20th century addiction to cheap and energy dense fossil fuels, far from accelerating the overall destruction of forests worldwide, has to a large degree saved and restored them.

Interestingly, the people who are most concerned about the loss of the rainforest and loss of biodiversity are often the same people who are most worried and fearful about genetic engineering and intensive farming. I hope we can eventually advance the global conversation and come to some agreement that there are ways in which responsible genetic engineering and widespread industrial tree cultivation could be a potential savior of natural biodiversity in the wild.

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