Proponents say they could boost paper supplies and cut the need for pesticides. Opponents argue the potential for dangerous reactions with insects and other plants in forests is too great a concern.
The issue is genetically modified trees, which are being tested in Minnesota at two sites -- in Koochiching County and, beginning this week, in Otter Tail County.
Both experiments involve poplar trees, a major resource of Minnesota's papermaking and wood products industries. About 60 percent of the 3.7 million cords of wood cut in the state each year are poplar, also called aspen.
The altered trees would be protected from pests such as beetles and competing weeds and be given traits to make them easier to process.
Opponents say little is known about the interplay between modified trees and the environment. While the traits spliced into the trees are widely used in corn and soybeans, introducing them in trees calls for extra caution, said David Andow, an insect ecology professor at the University of Minnesota.
Trees could pass their new genetic traits to wild relatives, causing changes in forest ecosystems, Andow said.
Genetically modified trees are ''not as different from wild trees as corn is from weeds,'' Andow said. They shed more pollen than corn does, so chances are greater that they would breed with wild trees.
But supporters say the trees could benefit the environment by cutting the need for pesticides used to control insects.
Chemicals often ''kill all of the insects, including the natural predators of the pests you are trying to control,'' said Richard Meilan, an Oregon State University molecular biologist and lead researcher on the Minnesota trial to begin this week.
But with genetically modified trees, targeted insects must eat some part of the tree to get the toxin. The toxin isn't active in animals, birds or even all insects, Meilan said.
Another argument is that the fast-growing farmed trees could help save natural stands of trees while helping meet the seemingly insatiable demand for paper.
This summer's trials should help answer the environmental questions, he said, and show whether the modified trees can thrive in the Upper Midwest.
''This trial is supposed to help decide what the benefits and risks are so that we can convey that to the public,'' Meilan said. ''People want to know.''
The trial involves poplar hybrids that have been given genes to thwart cottonwood leaf beetles that strip away leaves and stunt a tree's growth; the trees also withstand a type of weed killer. The poplar cuttings will be planted on less than an acre of land owned by Champion International Corp. of Connecticut, which produces paper for magazines and catalogs at a plant in Sartell.
A Champion spokesman said the trees would be destroyed and removed from the test plot before they can pollinate and breed with wild trees. Poplars start pollinating at about 4 years old. The site will be monitored for a year after the trees are removed.
Meilan would not reveal which genes will be inserted in the poplars because the company that provides the genetic material required him to sign an agreement keeping that information confidential.
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