“A Massive & Irreversible Experiment” with Unknown Risks to Forests and People
Written by Theresa Church and Ruddy Turnstone
While the season of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” is upon us, the public comment period for the genetically engineered American chestnut (GE AC) is imminent. The request to commercialize the GE AC is being called a “massive and irreversible experiment with our forests” that, if approved, would allow the unprecedented release of a fertile GMO plant into the wild.
This American chestnut has been engineered to tolerate a blight that was introduced to the US around 1900 from Asia. If released into the wild, it can never be recalled. Any request to allow the unregulated release of GE AC trees into forests must be rejected.
The American chestnut was a key source of food for animals, settlers and Indigenous Peoples and also used for medicine, wood and income. Along with rampant over-logging, the introduced chestnut blight decimated the tree’s population. There are millions of living stumps, which still sprout, but only a small handful mature enough to produce chestnuts.
Researcher William Powell and his team at State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) have engineered blight resistance into the chestnut with a suite of genes including an antibiotic resistance gene and an Oxalate Oxidase enzyme (OxO) gene, derived from wheat. Not enough testing has been done to prove this is safe. In fact, there are no assessments of the long-term risks of these trees, their pollen or seeds to forests, wildlife or human health.
Forests are incredibly complex. From the soils to the canopy tops, there is a highly sophisticated balance of interdependent relationships and interactions that science still has yet to understand. This is one of many reasons why GE forest trees are exceptionally risky. The impacts to these ecosystems cannot be predicted, especially in the long-term. Testing young chestnut saplings for proof of safety and effectiveness, as researchers have done, is not sufficient for trees that can live hundreds of years. Also, indoor and extremely controlled outdoor testing does not replicate how a tree will interact and react in the wild. Pollen can travel for many miles, transported by wind, insects or animals. Remaining wild American chestnuts, and organic or non-GMO chestnut orchards are threatened (pg. 6) with contamination by GE AC pollen. Additionally, impacts on human health from inhaling GE AC pollen are unknown.
A White Paper released this year highlights concerns regarding the GE AC,including Indigenous perspectives. The paper cites concerns in regard to the application of the UN’s requirement of Free, Prior and Informed Consent regarding their territories:
“Indigenous Peoples in the regions of proposed GE AC releases have expressed concern that unregulated distribution of a GE tree would violate their sovereign right to keep their territories GMO-free. If released, GE American chestnuts will spread uncontrolled and will not respect territorial borders.”
Numerous proponents of GE technology have characterized the American chestnut as an iconic species in order to change the public’s perception of genetic engineering. Jason Delborne, an associate professor of science, policy and society at North Carolina State University explains:
"If the chestnut is approved ... I think it's accurate to say that it does help pave the way for other biotech trees."
Delbourne served on a National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine committee which released a report this year on the use of biotechnology for forest health. Two of the key points in the report are that more studies are needed (pg. 6), and that the USDA has no guidelines to assess the risks of GE trees.
GE American Chestnut as a Trojan Horse for GE Tree Legalization
If deregulated, the GE AC opens the door to industrial plantation GE trees, such as eucalyptus, poplar and pine. Approval of GE eucalyptus plantations in the US South, for example, could lead to forest fires and droughts, as eucalyptus is highly flammable and water sucking. GE eucalyptus and GE poplar are both in the research phases for biofuel, biomass and pulp. Southern US forests are already under intense logging, as whole forests are chipped for wood pellets and shipped to the EU as “renewable energy”. Per unit of energy, biomass emits more CO2 than coal. Eucalyptus is also being promoted for biomass, and scientists have been working for years to engineer poplar for cellulosic biofuels, which like biomass, requires vast areas of land to meet current energy demands. As of today, increased demands for biofuels have already fueled deadly conflicts over land in Indonesia. These and other issues will only exacerbate if other industrial GE trees are approved.
Anne Petermann, Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project, analyzed the funders of the GEAC from Powell’s own website and TACF IRS reports. She uncovered that corporate backers including ArborGen, Monsanto, and Duke Energy, along with corporate-backed consortia like the Forest Health Initiative, had funded 40.21% of the work between 2008-2017. Monsanto also helped SUNY ESF’s American Chestnut Project prepare for the federal review process to deregulate the GE AC. For this and many more reasons it is critical for us to organize against the release of the GE AC.
The fight against GE trees is at least 20 years old, from protests, banner drops, disruptions, and over 280,000 public comments submitted against the GE Eucalyptus in 2017. Scientists, experts, chestnut growers, activists, moms and more are coming together to stop this major experiment.
In a world where we are fighting to protect our families, our communities and our environment, native forests need your support, please sign the petition against the GE AC now.
For Key References and Other Ways to Get Involved, See Our:
- White Paper on the GE AC
- Executive Summary of the White Paper
- Webinar on the GE AC
- Memes against the GE AC and for the White Paper.
- Petition Against the GE Chestnut
Theresa Church Is a GE trees campaigner for Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP) and is on the Campaign to Stop GE Trees Steering Committee.
Church is a 2019 graduate of Naropa University’s M.A. Resilient Leadership program with a concentration in Climate Justice studies. She is from the Finger Lakes Region of New York and is currently located in Buffalo. [email protected]
Ruddy Turnstone is a GE trees campaigner for Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP) and is on the Campaign to Stop GE Trees Steering Committee. She works to ban genetically engineered trees from commercialization globally, nationally and locally.
A mixed-race Desi living in the southeastern so-called U.S., Ruddy also provides climbing for protest trainings for Earth First!, Greenpeace, at Trans and Women’s Action Camps, and tree climbing to the public as recreation. She is also a direct action trainer and has worked with various coalitions on fighting energy infrastructure and biotech projects in “FL” since 2007. [email protected] & [email protected].