By Anne Petermann
While many people across the US are rejecting Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)s, a new untested and not-yet-approved GMO food/tree is being promoted: the genetically engineered American chestnut.
The American Chestnut once ranged widely throughout the forests of the eastern US and was an important source of food for people and wildlife, but in the first half of the 20th Century most of these trees were killed off by a fungal pathogen introduced from Asia. Scientists at SUNY Syracuse are now attempting to genetically engineer the American chestnut to resist this deadly fungus.
But many American chestnuts still exist throughout eastern forests. Stumps from dead trees have resprouted and some are old enough to produce chestnuts. Active work by other scientists is being undertaken to use these chestnuts to breed blight resistant wild American chestnuts—not engineered facsimiles. The scientists developing the Genetically Engineered (GE) chestnuts, however, argue that this is the only way we can restore the glory of the American chestnut to the eastern forests.
This plan is inherently dangerous—to forests, communities and wildlife. Science has shown that forcing foreign genes into an organism’s genome causes damage and mutations. This, in turn, causes the engineered organism to do highly unpredictable things that have unanticipated consequences.
A look at the partners and funders of the GE American chestnut program at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) over the years reveals some very disturbing bedfellows. They include both Monsanto and ArborGen. ArborGen is a GE tree research and development company based in South Carolina that is jointly owned by timber multinationals International Paper and MeadWestvaco (now WestRock). We know who Monsanto is.
The real reason ArborGen supports SUNY Syracuse’s GE chestnut research is not altruism but self interest. The GE American chestnut tree is being used to try to convince the public that GE trees can be beneficial. They want to change the extremely powerful public opposition to GE trees and open the door for other GE trees being developed for timber and biomass companies. It is solely about profits.
And what will be the impact on forests of GE American chestnut trees? The plan is to plant these GE trees in forests in a fully fertile state so they will spread their pollen and seeds freely, and contaminate any wild American chestnuts in their path.
Additionally, American chestnut trees can grow for 250 years or more. How will GE chestnut trees react to environmental stresses over time? How would drought, extreme cold, or floods, impact them? Trees have genes that ‘turn on and off’ in response to these environmental stresses. What if the gene for fungus resistance starts killing beneficial fungi in the soils? What if their pollen or nuts suddenly become toxic? What if they outcompete native trees like oaks and drive them out of the forests?
There is no possible way to know what the longterm impact of these trees will be in a highly complex forest ecosystem. These ecosystems are so complex that science doesn’t even know the questions to ask to do an assessment of the risks posed by these trees. And doing a thorough risk assessment of GE American chestnuts over their entire 250-year lifespan is not possible.
Genetically engineering American chestnuts is too dangerous with the potential to cause impacts significantly more serious than the chestnut blight itself. GE American chestnuts must be rejected. You can sign the petition against GE trees by going to stopgetrees.org.
Anne Petermann is the Executive Director of Buffalo based Global Justice Ecology Project and the International Coordinator of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees.