Still Unsure of Climate Change? Take to the Forest for Proof

Could insect resistant trees mitigate forest fires?

One of the most significant results from climate change in the forestry sector has been the migration of insects, like the spruce wood budworm and mountain pine beetle. Warmer winters have allowed both of these insects to spread into areas where they previously couldn’t exist, resulting in tens of millions of acres of dead forest. Natural Resources Canada estimates that half of the commercial forest in British Columbia has been killed by mountain pine beetles over the past 25 years.

The effect of these dead trees is most observable in the summer during forest fire season. The higher presence of dead trees fuel fires to increase in size more rapidly than may previously have been the case when forests were healthier, with more living trees. As these fires feed on the largely dead forest in some areas, some of these fires have become some of the largest forest fires on record for some regions. In 2016, the Fort McMurray wildfire burned 1.4 million acres, causing $3.6 billion in economic damage. In 2017, wildfires in the interior of British Columbia burnt over 3 million acres, causing nearly $600 million in damages. At the time of writing this post, over 3 million acres of forest have again been burnt in the BC interior during 2018.

Fire is necessary for a healthy forest

Dead trees or not, fires will happen and they are necessary to re-growing our forests. Forest fires are good… in moderation. Right now it seems as though our forestry is headed into a dangerous cycle of fires with the imposing presence of insects killing large areas of forest at a time (YouTube video of Colorado forest and the Mountain Pine Beetle).

Not all of these fires are in remote regions though and it is now an annual occurrence that homes are destroyed in moments by forest fires that are beyond the ability of fighters to control. In rare instances, firefighters lives have been lost, the ultimate tragedy.

If we can’t stop climate change can we stop the fires?

Fires will happen no matter what, we can do our best to reduce or control them, but we cannot avoid forest fires. We can, however, reduce the spread of insects from killing the forests. Trees are plants and plants can and have been genetically modified to be resistant to insects. Corn, cotton and soybeans are some of the best examples of plants that have been modified with this technology, dramatically reducing insect damage. Breeding new tree varieties, particularly pines, with insect resistance, would provide one option for mitigating the scale and scope of forest fires as there would be higher populations of live, healthy trees. Sterile varieties of food plants (specific varieties of grapes, watermelon, and corn) have already been developed and sterility could also be included as a trait with GM trees to assist in the control of the species.

Plant today to plan for the future

Due to the lengthy time it takes trees to mature, this isn’t exactly a ‘quick’ solution. If investments started in short order, it could still take 15 years before the first GM trees could be planted. Planting these trees widely across the millions of acres of wilderness is very unlikely, most would be done in areas of commercial forests. Having such tree is one option that provides a solution that will help forests remain healthy, not predominantly dead due to insect damage.

One of the most significant benefits of establishing insect resistant trees in existing forests would be the improvement of air quality from fewer (hopefully) forest fires and the short- and long-term health effects. Short-term health costs on those with asthma and related health issues to the long-term impacts on heart disease. Based on health care costs such as this it begs the question, can we afford not to invest in insect resistant trees?

Investing in technologies like this, can also help to keep food prices lower. Now, you might say what do trees and food prices have in common? Fair enough question! Recall that all of our food products are transported in cardboard boxes, have cardboard dividers and contain paper labels. Sure, this isn’t a huge portion of the overall cost of food, but it’s a portion that gets more expensive when the price of paper rises. If increasing amounts of commercial forest succumb to forest fire, the price of lumber will certainly rise, but so too will all forest and wood related products. To ensure that all segments of society have the opportunity to consume as nutritious and cheaply priced food as is possible, all efforts to ensure that food prices remain as stable and constant as possible need full examination. Perhaps GM insect resistant trees provide an option to achieve this.

One Comment

  1. I have written about the possible value of GE trees for pest problems under climate change, though not fire per se, and emphasized the great problem in using them given regulations and green certifications that exclude GE trees even from field research. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/349/6250/794.summary?rss=1

    Those restrictions aside, its also a question about whether we could get them out and planted in time (and on a scale that matters) given slowness of tree breeding in general, cost/obstacles to transformation and propagation, and the speed of new climate/pest problem development.

    I would love to see a world where we can those choices based on science and economics, not ideology and method-based restrictions, but we are so far from it that its hard to know where to start to change things significantly.

    For bark beetles, where water and heat stress is such a large factor, its also unclear what genes might be effective (though I would love to see science give it a try)…for budworm of course we have some good genes in hand now….

    Would love to try HIGS as a solution or added source of resistance for both pests….no idea if it would help with either but not a hard experiment to do….

    Steve Strauss, Professor, Oregon State University

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