On Saturday 7 July 2020, The Scranton Times Tribune ran an op ed by Anne Petermann, International Coordinator for the Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees titled Genetically Modified Chestnuts Imperil Forests. The following is Peterman’s submission to the paper.

Jim Lockwood’s 6 July article “Blight-resistant American chestnut seedlings planted at Nay Aug Park in Scranton,” talks about the effort to bring back the American chestnut tree—an effort which also includes plans to use genetically engineered trees.

 For decades, American chestnut enthusiasts have been trying to undo the tragic story of the American chestnut, which was decimated in the early 1900s by a combination of the chestnut blight and widespread logging. 

 The American chestnut was already under tremendous logging pressure when the blight broke out. A blight-prevention policy of logging both infected and healthy trees is thought to have contributed to the blight’s severity. Many of those “salvaged” trees might have had resistance to the blight and provided stock for a natural regeneration of the species.

Instead, researchers are now planning another risky and ill-thought out blight-prevention scheme, this time planting genetically engineered (GE) American chestnuts– so-called “mother trees”–near wild American chestnuts in order to spread their GE pollen to wild trees, leading their offspring to be GE as well. The idea is to plant GE chestnut trees throughout the forests of the Eastern US so that they can contaminate as many wild American chestnuts as possible, which would eventually spread into southern Ontario.

 Not only does this plan dismiss the numerous initiatives that have been going on for decades to restore the American chestnut naturally, it actually threatens to derail them. The American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation (ACCF), for example, is breeding blight resistant wild American chestnuts without the aid of biotechnology—and without the financial and technical assistance from Monsanto and other corporations who support the effort to manufacture GE American chestnuts. 

 The ACCF’s dedicated work would be for naught if their blight resistant wild trees are contaminated by GE pollen.

 Because the GE chestnuts were developed in a lab in a way that could never occur in nature (forcing genes from unrelated wheat plants into the DNA of trees), there is no way to know how they will respond in nature.

 In fact, the researchers who promote these trees have done no long-term risk assessments to determine how these trees will interact in a natural forest over time, or how they will impact human health.

 Geneticist Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher of the Federation of German Scientists points out, “… due to the longevity and complexity of trees as organisms with large habitats and numerous interactions, currently no meaningful and sufficient risk assessment of GE trees is possible, and especially a trait-specific risk assessment is not appropriate.”

For this and many other reasons, the statement in the “More Information” sidebar that accompanied the article which states, “The transgenic American chestnut, named the Darling 58, has been proven safe for people and the environment” is patently false.

In fact, neither the USDA, the EPA nor the FDA have deemed these trees safe, and according to the National Academies of Science, they do not have the capability to do so.  Referring to the agencies, in a January 2018 NAS report they wrote, “There are no specific regulations or policies that those agencies apply to biotech trees.” They went on to state, “Forest health is not accounted for in the regulations for the use of biotechnology or for other approaches to mitigating forest tree insect pests or pathogens.”

Another important concern is the fact that, if approved, GE American chestnut would be the first-ever GE forest tree approved in the US, opening the doors to other risky GE trees. As well, it would be the first-ever genetically modified organism (GMO) intentionally released into wild ecosystems–setting a dangerous precedent to allow other unmonitored GMO releases.

Wild American chestnut trees can’t be replaced by GE facsimiles. This is not restoration, but an uncontrolled experiment with our forests.

Already our forests are under duress. Climate change and extreme weather, invasive plants and insects, have left our forests in a fragile state. Adding GE transgenic trees and their unpredictable impacts could exacerbate this stress. 

 I also appreciate the American chestnut.  But what the forests need are wild American chestnuts, not unproven and risky GE trees.

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