Brussels, 07 Apr 2004
Pioneering research spanning the entire forestry-wood chain – from forest genetics, management and conservation through to pulp and paper production – is coming into its own, thanks to EU grants.
For a decade or more, the European Union has contributed to research in the forestry sector. But the work took place on a relatively small scale, and was limited to fragmented forestry and wood-related investigations under several programme headings. With the introduction of its Quality-of-Life programme on Sustainable Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry – popularly called 'Key Action 5' – research in this field grew in stature. But delegates at a recent Commission-sponsored event fear fresh research vigour is needed in this area to meet the challenges of enlargement and the environment.
Alongside the Key Action 5 activities in the EU's Fifth Framework Programme for funding science and technology is research carried out in other programmes including Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development (EESD), Competitive and Sustainable Growth (better known as 'Growth'), and through dedicated International Co-operation (INCO) programmes.
Today, no fewer than 63 Key Action 5 forestry-wood chain research projects are being funded by the EU, to the tune of €80 million, under the broad heading 'Sustainable and multi-purpose utilisation of forest resources; the integrated forestry-wood chain'. More than 500 researchers are working to sharpen the sector's competitive edge, improving sustainable production and the rational use of one of Europe's oldest natural resources, while also developing new technologies and multidisciplinary, integrated approaches.
Their efforts inform European forestry strategy, as well as current and future environmental, agricultural, rural development and industrial strategies. And important lessons are being learned for future research, not just for integrating the new Member States into the current EU Framework Programme (FP6) projects but also for guiding future programmes.
A cut above the rest
Some of these 'integrated forestry-wood chain' projects have already finished and many are in their final stages. Taking stock of achievements so far, the Research Directorate-General singled out 13 success stories from across the Union, and invited them to present their findings at a workshop on forestry-wood chain research held in Brussels in early March. These included research on gene flows in oaks, mapping enzymes for fibre engineering from transgenic poplars, composting wood chippings, magnetic resonance imaging of damp wood, and more.
Environmental change is another major factor affecting the composition of Europe's forests. Here, the French Agronomic Research Institute (INRA) is doing interesting work to assess the impact of gene flow and hybridisation in oak trees using chloroplast DNA markers. Another project from Munich, RODET, showed ways of improving paper making efficiency, while reducing pollution.
The market outlook is not bright. Prices are falling and jobs are scarce, while demand for traditional products like newsprint is falling. Many foresters and timber producers are in dire straits as competition from alternative materials grows: the search is on for new types of high-tech, high-quality and more durable wood.
But one thing that emerged loud and clear from the workshop is the need for a stronger European R&D approach in this sector, providing a solid platform for disseminating the results and helping industry meet modern challenges. Delegates also expressed surprise at how the forestry-related research in FP5 was less visible in FP6, calling for this oversight to be addressed in future research programmes, especially in light of the enlargement process.
When the Union widens its ranks to 25 countries in May, its forests will expand by 34 million hectares overnight and timber production will go up by 20% from the current (EU-15) annual output of 120 million m3 of softwood (mainly spruce and pine) and over 40 million m3 of hardwood (e.g. oak, beech and poplar). Today, this timber has an aggregate market value of €6 to 8 billion, and growing. Delegates admitted that wood production in the EU's new countries will be very cost-competitive, but they asked: is this production sustainable? This is a question further research could answer.