New York Times: For the First Time, Genetically Modified Trees Have Been Planted in a U.S. Forest

GE American Chestnut Tree

Summary of Article: On Monday February 13, 2023, nearly 5,000 GE trees were planted in a U.S. Forest. The modified poplars, planted in Georgia on private land, were produced by Living Carbon. The San Francisco-based biotechnology company claims the trees are fast growing. This claim is uncertain, as the company has not published peer-reviewed papers and bases its findings on a greenhouse trial that lasted only 5-months. Planting on private land also means the company avoids regulatory hurdles. Currently, the only country where large numbers of genetically engineered trees are known to have been planted is China.

Action Alert (before March 13, 2023): Sign the petition that calls on the Forest Stewardship Council to reaffirm its commitment to prohibits the use of genetically engineered trees.

Note: Listen to Researcher Jutta Kill Debunk Carbon Offsets in the February 2nd, 2023, Earth Watch Podcast.

The following are excerpts from the Article “For the First Time, Genetically Modified Trees Have Been Planted in a U.S. Forest ” by Gabriel Popkin, dated February 16, 2023. Source: New York Times

The Global Justice Ecology Project, an environmental group, has called the company’s trees “growing threats” to forests and expressed alarm that the federal government allowed them to evade regulation, opening the door to commercial plantings much sooner than is typical for engineered plants.

The company’s researchers created the greenhouse-tested trees using a bacterium that splices foreign DNA into another organism’s genome. But for the trees they planted in Georgia, they turned to an older and cruder technique known as the gene gun method, which essentially blasts foreign genes into the trees’ chromosomes.

The gene gun-modified poplars avoided a set of federal regulations of genetically modified organisms that can stall biotech projects for years. (Those regulations have since been revised.) By contrast, a team of scientists who genetically engineered a blight-resistant chestnut tree using the same bacterium method employed earlier by Living Carbon have been awaiting a decision since 2020.

“You could say the old rule was sort of leaky,” said Bill Doley, a consultant who helped manage the Agriculture Department’s genetically modified organism regulation process until 2022.

Forest geneticists were less sanguine about Living Carbon’s trees. Researchers typically assess trees in confined field trials before moving to large-scale plantings, said Andrew Newhouse, who directs the engineered chestnut project at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “Their claims seem bold based on very limited real-world data,” he said.

Steve Strauss, a geneticist at Oregon State University, agreed with the need to see field data. “My experience over the years is that the greenhouse means almost nothing.”

Living Carbon is focusing for now on private land, where it will face fewer hurdles. Later this spring it will plant poplars on abandoned coal mines in Pennsylvania.

To produce an income stream not reliant on venture capital, the company has started marketing credits based on carbon its trees will soak up. But carbon credits have come under fire lately and the future of that industry is in doubt.

Last spring, the Global Justice Ecology Project argued that Living Carbon’s trees could harm the climate by “interfering with efforts to protect and regenerate forests.”

“I’m very shocked that they’re moving so fast” to plant large numbers of modified trees in the wild, said Anne Petermann, the organization’s executive director. The potential risks to the greater ecosystem needed to be better understood, she said.

Dr. [Donald] Ort of the University of Illinois dismissed such environmental concerns. But he said investors were taking a big chance on a tree that might not meet its creators’ expectations.

“It’s not unexciting,” he said. “I just think it’s uber high risk.”

The entire article can be read on the website of the  New York Times.

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