The GMO American Chestnut: Restoration of a Beloved Species or Biotech Trojan Horse?
In These Times 16 July 2019
Rachel Smolker and Anne Petermann
About a century ago, the American chestnut tree was attacked by the invasive fungal pathogen Cryphonectria parasitica. The fungal blight drove the tree—an estimated 3-4 billion once grew in the United States—to functional extinction.
Now, scientists at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) claim to have genetically engineered a resistant American chestnut variety. They aim to petition the required regulatory agencies (USDA, FDA, EPA) for approval of their genetically engineered chestnut in the near future, with the stated goal of restoring the species to nature.
However, the choices made about the genetically engineered (GE) American chestnut will set a precedent for the future use of biotechnology on other forest tree species and, even more broadly, on the use of biotechnology as a tool for conservation.
If approved, the GE chestnut would be the first GE forest tree species to be planted in forests with the deliberate intention of spreading freely. Monitoring or reversing their spread, once released, would likely be impossible due to the hampered ability to perform valid risk assessments of the potential consequences of GE American chestnuts as a result of our lack of knowledge about the ecology of both the American chestnut and its forest ecosystems. And since American chestnuts can live for over 200 years, risk factors may change over the tree’s lifetime in unpredictable ways.
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Dr. Rachel Smolker is an evolutionary biologist and the Co-Director of Biofuelwatch and a Steering Committee member of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees
Anne Petermann is the Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project and the Coordinator of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees