And now to Raleigh…
24 June 2019; by Anne Petermann
The opening of the 2019 IUFRO Tree Biotechnology conference was a bizzare mix. It was part plea for help, part slick advertising campaign, part comedy routine and part old home reminiscing.
The evening was emceed by a very nervous Ross Whetten, a Professor in the NCSU Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, who seemed to be expecting a protest to break out at any moment (which would explain the police officers milling about in the hallway, overseeing the registration, and watching the parking lot). He introduced the couple of IUFRO (International Union of Forest Research Organizations) Forest Bioechnology Task Force Coordinators who had bothered to attend their bi-annual fête, noting that their Brazilian representative Dario Grattapaglia was not present. Interesting since the event was originally announced to be held in Curitiba, but was moved, at the last minute, to Raleigh following protests at the last 2017 IUFRO Tree Biotechnology Conference in Concepcíon, Chile.
Perhaps it was the fact of ongoing protests (we had disrupted the 2013 IUFRO Tree Biotechnology Conference in Asheville and the one in Concepcíon, Chile in 2017) and the nagging negative image of genetically engineering trees that led a representative from IUFRO to implore the audience in Raleigh to consider getting involved in IUFRO, as their team had been getting smaller and smaller by the year.
Interestingly, the organizers had created a new narrative about the relocation of the 2019 TB conference to Raleigh. At the end of the opening plenary, Whetten explained that the conference had, in fact, been announced for Raleigh at the conference in Concepcíon following the revelation that the NSCU-based “father of tree biotechnology,” Ron Sederoff, had won a major award and was to retire.
Funny that. I was in the audience in Concepcíon when the Chair announced that the 2019 IUFRO would take place in Curitiba, Brazil. It was notable to me because there is a huge groundswell of grassroots and institutional opposition to genetically engineered trees and tree plantations in Brazil and huge mobilizations of the militant MST were taking place regularly in Curitiba. Women of the MST and other social movements had also, several times on international women’s day, destroyed millions of eucalyptus or GE eucalyptus seedlings. Having their 2019 conferece in Curitiba would make it an affair to remember. I contacted folks in Brazil and the Campaign to STOP GE Trees right away to let them know.
Then suddenly, inexplicably, after Concepcíon, the 2019 Tree Biotechnology conference disappeared from the IUFRO official website, along with any mention of their committee. It was as if they never existed. We checked back regularly to try to find it as people were anxious to start getting prepared in Brazil. But for the next 20 months it was gone. Then suddenly, out of the blue, the 2019 Tree Biotechnology Conference appeared again, reconfigured for Raleigh, North Carolina—in the heart of the “Research Triangle” – hosted by the techno-obsessed North Carolina State University.
I was familiar with the campus as I had been there the year prior, in April, for a workshop on public acceptance of the GE American chestnut. The hosts of that gathering, led by NSCU’s Jason Delbourne, were insisting, without a hint of irony, that they “had no dog in this fight” – they were simply hosting this conversation on the merits or concerns about that GE tree and had no opinion one way or the other – an idea belied by both the one-sided presentations at the event, its proceedings, and the subsequent writings on the GE American chestnut by Delbourne.
To us, the organizers of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees, the venue was a logical choice for the purveyors of genetically engineered trees given its pro-tech leanings and track record of support for the genetically engineered American chestnut.