NTIS: investing in tree breeding and improvement
The UK is the third largest importer of timber in the world and also one of the least wooded countries in Europe. Expanding our trees and forests and using more long lived timber products are key to addressing and mitigating climate change. By the 2050s forests could be delivering a 10% annual abatement of UK greenhouse gas emissions.
If we are to achieve that on a finite area of land, with a changing climate and an expanding range of new pests and diseases, we need to invest in tree breeding and improvement to get the best return. At the moment between FR, FTT, the Conifer Co-op, and Chalara-resistance funding from DEFRA, there is approximately £1M spent annually on tree breeding in the UK. This is for an industry worth £1 billion / year in Scotland alone.
Breeding of Sitka spruce, Britain’s most commercially important conifer species, has resulted in predictions of 25% increased growth-rate and even greater increases in volumes of quality green logs. Cost : benefit studies elsewhere have shown that for every £1 spent on breeding Sitka Spruce there is a £200 return net of inflation; the equivalent figure for oak is £8 which is still a worthwhile investment. These returns are based solely on timber values; an increase in the value of carbon could increase returns further. Meanwhile the Scottish (and probably UK) forestry sector has grown by 50% since 2008 both in terms of contribution to the economy but also in number of people employed.
Tree breeding research
Agriculture has been breeding plants for food for thousands of years. By comparison, the current gains in yield and quality in trees over the last century have been modest. If we are to sustain forestry growth and realise the full potential benefits for society and the wider forestry sector, we need to invest more into tree breeding research.
It is clear that if more research into tree breeding could be commissioned, the returns would be considerable. At the same time, failure to invest in tree breeding may have a negative effect and result in our forests becoming less diverse and more vulnerable to adverse biotic and abiotic change.