Dark Hort? More Questions than Answers
Jen Ries, Fedco Trees Coordinator, on behalf of Fedco
The chestnut, an iconic tree of the American landscape, is poised to become a different kind of icon of a new era. A petition has arrived at the USDA asking for the release of the genetically engineered Darling 58 chestnut tree with hopes of approval within the next year. If accepted, the genetically engineered (GE) chestnut would become the first GE tree used in a restoration planting. This is unprecedented. Once that box is open, it cannot be closed. Please consider taking some time to inform yourself.
Is it an act of restoration when what is being “restored” is altered in a way that would never occur in nature? Dr. William Powell, lead researcher of the engineered chestnut project, has presented this as a tree for the people. Is that true, or is this a tree for some people? Corporate lumber companies have sought approval to release GE trees into the landscape and have been met with public opposition. The GE chestnut could open this door to corporate interests. (“Know Your Farmers” is a good slogan to live by; so is “Know Your Funders!”) We have only the tiniest glimpse into how the intricate ancient relationships—evolved over millions of years—function among tree roots, fungi, insects and people, all of whom depend on the health of this dynamic system. We’re looking at potentially disrupting this forever. Are we ready for this?
The absence of information is alarming. The potential for mutations with unknown impacts is vast. In 1999, Cornell reported that the pollen of Bt corn (engineered to carry Bacillus thuringiensis) was found to be toxic to monarch butterflies. This impact had not been measured before the corn’s release. The pollen of GE trees will travel far and impart engineered genes to wild native trees. Will pest-resistant GE trees have a leg up on non-GE trees and lead to GE trees dominating the forest? GE lumber trees designed to produce less lignin could reduce costs and chemical inputs at the paper mill, but will the trees lack structural integrity, creating new problems and new genetic traits to be distributed into the forest? These are just hints at the concerns.
We want to right the wrongs of the past, but throwing incomplete science at the problems we’ve created has a sketchy track record. Remember when we were assured that PFAS sludge on our Maine fields was totally safe and would solve a recycling problem? DDT, Roundup-ready crops, fracking…“Better living through chemistry!” What could possibly go wrong?
Maybe GE is here to stay. If so, we must demand correct assessment, study and good policy implementation, as Eric stated in the previous column. Perhaps then we should be willing to put in 200–300 years to study the GE chestnut before we release it. In geologic time, this doesn’t seem like a tall order, considering the impact of this decision on our wild forests. Maybe it’s time to slow down, shift some patterns and reorganize our priorities. It’s time to consider the impact of the way we consume and move materials around the globe.
For decades now, Fedco has chimed in on the GE issue and how it threatens our environment and food systems. The GE chestnut is being presented for restoration, and perhaps considered not fundamentally linked to our food or seed systems. But we believe seed is seed, and food is food, whoever or whatever is eating it. This matters.
Fedco will not support GE trees. Furthermore, Fedco does not knowingly carry genetically engineered seeds. At our 1996 Annual Meeting, our cooperative voted unanimously not to knowingly offer for sale any genetically engineered variety because the new gene technologies pose unacceptable risks to the environment. For more about this pledge, our commitment to testing for GE contamination, and talks on GE by Fedco founder CR Lawn, please go here
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