Genetically Engineered Trees: Growing Threats to Eastern Forests
Heartwood/Heartbeat Spring 2022 Issue
We are closer than ever to climate tipping points that could significantly change life as we know it. Bearing the brunt of the climate crisis are our forests, which are the basis for so-called nature-based solutions (NBS). These NBS schemes are not, however, intended to seriously address the climate crisis, but to provide “offsets” and other excuses that enable industry and governments to maintain business as usual. These NBS schemes underpin the political push to develop genetically engineered (GE) trees for agriculture and forestry offsets. While they may sound appealing on paper, the reality is that GE trees could further exacerbate the climate crisis by threatening forest ecosystems, Indigenous Peoples, and biodiversity, especially in Eastern forests.
An American chestnut tree has been genetically engineered with a wheat gene to resist fungal blight, and despite the fact that not enough testing has been done to prove this is safe, it is being considered for deregulation and researchers intend to release it into wild forests throughout the eastern US.
Eastern forests and the forests of the Appalachians are additionally threatened by a new GE poplar engineered to kill fungus and grow faster. Mine reclamation sites are being targeted by Living Carbon, the new startup company that is developing these GE poplars. The USDA has decided not to regulate this tree due to the technology used to develop it, which leaves the door wide open to the development of huge monoculture plantations of the fungus-killing tree on the hundreds of thousands of acres of mine sites throughout the region. Living Carbon also intends to sell these trees to timber multinationals and large landowners for industrial plantations. They are marketing the carbon “stored” in these rot-resistant plantations as “carbon offsets” to polluters that enable them to avoid emissions cuts–for which they would get a cut of the profits. There are no assessments of the risks these fungicidal trees pose to forest ecosystems, water, or nearby human communities.
The long-term risks of either of these GE trees, their pollen or seeds to forests, wildlife or human health are unknown. Rather than provide a solution, GE trees have the potential to damage forests, and escalate climate change, environmental destruction, and economic inequality. Without a fundamental systemic transformation, no progress towards a liveable future will be made.
The Campaign to STOP GE Trees released a statement titled, “GE Trees: NO Solution to Climate Change” which goes into greater detail on the threats GE trees pose to the climate. Here is an excerpt:
As concern about the climate crisis intensifies, so does rhetoric surrounding the role of forests, trees and carbon storage in climate mitigation. The science is clear that halting destruction of forests, which includes respecting the territorial rights of communities and peoples who depend on forests, is among the most effective, proven, and available means of removing carbon from the atmosphere, and that undisturbed forests with diverse species, rich intact soils and deadwood store far more carbon than industrial tree plantations.
Despite this established science, the tree biotechnology industry and its allies in academia are cynically capitalizing on the climate crisis to promote their genetically engineered (GE) trees as a climate “solution,” arguing their GE trees will sequester “more carbon.” Additionally, GE trees are being designed specifically to be cut on short rotations and to provide a rapid supply of wood for the purpose of maintaining business as usual, in the form of bioenergy, biochemicals and bioplastics, construction, alternatives to concrete, and many other purportedly “green” uses.
Yet GE trees and the plantations–especially in the proposed locations–threaten forests, communities and health, as well as diverting resources from proven effective and equitable solutions. GE trees will not solve climate change but exacerbate it by interfering with efforts to protect and regenerate forests.
To download the statement in English, Spanish, Portuguese or French visit:
To join the effort to keep wild forests safe from the unknown and unknowable risks of genetically engineered trees, contact us at email@example.com or go to stopgetrees.org
By Theresa Church-Assistant Director, Global Justice Ecology Project & GE Tree Campaigner