Research and development: Forest Genetics

By Anthony Doesburg

Research and development doesn't always happen in the obvious places. Anthony Doesburg profiles some of the companies getting taxpayer help to boost their innovation efforts.

Tree breeder Mike Carson hopes research will encourage more demand from large forestry companies. Photo / Christine Cornege
Tree breeder Mike Carson hopes research will encourage more demand from large forestry companies. Photo / Christine Cornege

The humble radiata pine might not seem an obvious target for millions of dollars of research and development. But that's been precisely the focus since Mike and Sue Carson, plant breeding scientists with decades of forestry experience, established Forest Genetics 12 years ago.

The Rotorua business, which has the equivalent of five full-time workers, focuses on growth rate, wood density, log quality, timber stiffness and disease resistance, leading to the development of 25 varieties. The company doesn't use genetic engineering, but identifies superior varieties, then breeds and propagates them by conventional cloning methods.

Forest Genetics' varieties can lift returns to growers by more than $20,000 a hectare, the company says. What's more, it says its trees capture 25 per cent more carbon on average than other varieties.

Mike Carson says it's just as well that increased carbon absorption is a natural side effect of the faster-growing, more dense trees that the firm's breeding programme selects for, because it would be a hard sell getting forest owners to pay extra just for that.

That's partly because Government efforts to create a carbon market through the emissions trading scheme have flopped, giving plantation owners little incentive to make carbon capture a priority. It's also a result of the 30-year wait between planting trees for which they have paid a premium price and pocketing the expected higher profits.

"If you compare it with annual crops, it's much easier to sell the idea of genetic improvement because you get a more immediate return."

The upshot is that high carbon absorption is not of itself a goal of the breeding programme, Carson says.

"We can't afford to make it a major focus but fortunately it happens to coincide with those other goals.

"It would certainly make a big difference to our company and a lot of others if the message about the need for more afforestation, both for reasons of controlling climate change and, more importantly, for erosion control and water quality, was got through by a pricing mechanism."

Forest Genetics supplies about 2.5 million of the 55-60 million seedlings planted each year in New Zealand. At up to $720 for 1000 seedlings, they're more than twice the price of the least genetically improved seedlings on the market.

The company's aim of improving its stock at a faster rate than the overall breeding population will be significantly boosted by the R&D grant, Carson says. "We need to get more large companies to take the step into clonal forestry. In order to do that we need to maintain the research effort and keep our product improving."

What: Rotorua tree breeder
R&D spending: Up to $350,000 a year

- NZ Herald

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