U.S. forests are among the most vulnerable in the world to predators and disease, and those threats are being compounded by climate change, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The report suggests that two U.S. agencies—the Department of Agriculture and EPA—and the nonprofit U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities Inc. consider using more tools from emerging fields of biotechnology to promote healthy forests. They would include the use of genetically engineered trees to prevent the loss of forested lands from pests.

It notes that the United States has more than 100 million square miles of forests, an area exceeded only by Canada, Brazil and Russia. A panel of scientists convened by the National Academies to explore deteriorating forest health estimates that 7 percent of U.S. forests could lose at least 25 percent of their trees by 2027.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Jason Delborne, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, noted that most studies on using biotechnology to protect forests have been done in Canada and Europe. Relatively little work is underway in the United States.

He and other members of the panel stressed that more public funds are needed to expand tree breeding programs and the use of biotechnological tools such as genetic editing to help grow trees that can survive threats such as the chestnut blight and root rot, which have killed 4 billion American chestnut trees.

But there are complicating problems, such as the time it takes to develop genetically modified trees. Potential public opposition to the “loss of wildness” in forests could also slow government response to the threat. Most of the biotechnology used in the United States has been in the private sector, and the first cases of how to regulate chestnut trees that have been genetically modified to resist blight will be presented to U.S. agencies in coming months, Delborne said.

The panel’s report stressed that it’s not easy or quick to first select trees that can survive pests and diseases and then use their genetic material to grow trees that are more resistant. “Not all of the progeny will be resistant,” it noted. It also advocated that surveys, town meetings and focus groups be used to help people who live near forests get a better understanding of biotechnological solutions before field testing of modified trees is undertaken.

It says that people who worry about the loss of “wildness” in their nearby forests should understand that many of the losses from imported pests are caused “by people and native pests extending their range because of human influence on climate change.”

“A healthy forest sustains ecosystems over time and space and provides value to humans,” noted Susan Offutt, the chairwoman of the panel. She pointed out that healthy forests tend to promote water filtration and help sequester more carbon dioxide emissions.

“The loss of a tree species can have cascading harmful effects on the forest ecosystem and on the benefits it provides to human populations,” she said.

The panel, which listened to 43 speakers and reviewed the growing literature on biotechnology, concluded that “gaps” in Americans' understanding of growing forest problems could be filled by retraining academics and others involved in more traditional approaches to the problem.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.