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4 Questions with Stanley Hirsch, CEO of FuturaGene —creator of Brazil’s first commercially available GE eucalyptus tree

1. What is the significance of Brazil’s approval of the GE eucalyptus for forest biotechnology?  

The approval of FuturaGene’s GM eucalyptus is the result of 15 years of development and testing. The approval is a milestone in the ongoing process to show that biotechnology is an important tool for the sustainable intensification of production and not an environmental problem, as depicted by many groups who choose not to look at the data. We live in a world of diminishing resources and increasing demand. In parallel to developing this technology, FuturaGene has worked openly to disseminate the message that this technology is safe and that it has broad socioeconomic benefits, down to the local level. We hope that this approval will be the first step in the approval of additional beneficial technologies for enhancing renewable plantation forests.

2. How will this decision — and GE eucalyptus — have a positive impact on the world? 

In its “Living Forests Report” the WWF estimates that global demand for wood will increase three fold to 10 billion m3 per annum by 2050. Today, although plantations represent only 7% of the global forest cover, they produce 50% of industrial wood. To meet the growing demand at current rates of productivity, we would need to plant an additional 250 million hectares of plantations. Whilst there is sufficient degraded land to do this, this should be done in combination with the sustainable intensification of productivity of the current resource. Whilst improved management practices will have an impact on this, scientific and technological innovation should be harnessed to improve yields and to protect yields from the changing spectrum of disease and pests resulting from climate change and global mobility. Conventional breeding of certain species such as eucalyptus is reaching diminishing returns. In addition, we may not be able to combat certain abiotic and biotic stresses through conventional breeding tools, especially in the time frames of current threat development. A catastrophe such as the mountain pine beetle in plantation forestry would significantly impact extraction from natural forests, with significant and perhaps irreversible consequences. Technology will be vital in helping to sustain life on this planet.

3. What are next steps for FuturaGene — are you working on other trees, in other countries?  

FuturaGene has additional projects for yield enhancement and yield protection in eucalyptus and poplar, which is the other main species we are developing. The principal territories on which we focus our development are Brazil, China and the USA. Not all of our technologies are based only on genetic modification. In China, for example, we have a number of projects where we are trying to develop plant varieties, which can couple eco-system services with economic offtake, which are aimed at improving projects to halt desertification. Some of these projects involve engineering plants to produce high value metabolites or products, whilst other projects use conventional breeding approaches to produce elite varieties and improve agronomic properties.

4. When will these bioengineered trees be available to Brazil’s farmers? 

In principle, the trees are ready for planting post-deregulation. Our first customer is our parent company Suzano. Suzano has committed to supplying this improved germplasm to the small farmers in its out-growers programs under existing agreements, which do not charge for licences and are royalty free. In practice, there are forest certification issues that we are working to deal with through dialogue with the relevant certifying bodies. Once these issues are resolved, the material could be available to small farmers very rapidly.

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