Medium 27 July 2020

Theresa Church

The University of New England (UNE) is partnering with SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry (ESF) to develop the first ever genetically engineered (GE) forest tree for release into the wild. UNE has a request pending with the USDA for an outdoor field trial of these trees. Researchers have engineered blight resistant American chestnut trees using Oxalate Oxidase (OxO), a gene derived from wheat, in an experiment that is more closely related to science fiction.

The American chestnut was an iconic tree that once dominated eastern forests. They are a relatively complex species especially compared to wheat, which according to Professor Thomas Klak of UNE “is a good candidate for genetic transfer because it exists naturally in many different plants, from azaleas to bananas.” Wheat is not only outside the genus and family of the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), but even outside the same order of the once iconic tree. This combination has never existed before in nature, yet GE American chestnut trees are designed for release into the wild to spread with no regulation or monitoring.

Researchers are seeking government approval to release these trees even though they have no idea what the implications will be on forests. There are no long-term risk assessments of the GE American chestnut, and such assessments are not possible with trees that live hundreds of years. In fact, the oldest of these experimental trees is less than two decades. This can hardly be used to claim blight tolerance and assess the risks of these trees, their pollen or seeds to forests, wildlife or human health over the full life-span of the tree.

If legalized, this would be the first GMO plant ever to be released into the wild with the intention of contaminating wild relatives. This unprecedented release would be a dangerous experiment with our forests, one that will yield irreversible and unpredictable impacts.

Historically, the public has opposed GE trees, including poplar and eucalyptus. In this case, the nostalgia of the American chestnut is beingused to sway the public’s rejection of GE trees and as a test case to promote biotechnology under the guise of restoring forest health.

UNE is working with ESF to speed breed GE tree seedlings that they intend to cross-breed with wild American chestnuts. Klak says, “OxO won’t push the chestnut tree blight into evolving resistant strains because it doesn’t alter the fungal life cycle, but merely neutralizes a side effect.” He makes no mention of the risks associated with breeding GE trees, or the fact that these GE trees are not the same as the wild American chestnuts. If approved by the USDA, this GE tree could spread uncontrollably, threatening wild American chestnuts with contamination. It would also open the floodgates to GE trees engineered with traits like herbicide resistance or the ability to kill insects, for use in industrial tree plantations.

Deregulation of the GE American chestnut would help the timber and paper industries by setting a precedent that would unleash the development of yet more GE trees for industrial plantations. This is where the vast majority of research into GE trees has been directed.

Nature is a complex web of life that has evolved over billions of years. The introduction of a new GE tree, which has been backed by Monsanto, ArborGen, Duke Energy and other corporate interests, threatens the evolutionary integrity of that web. We know too little about the intricate functioning of forest ecosystems and do not have the tools to accurately assess the risks posed by the GE American Chestnut on forest ecology.

Researchers ignore the intelligence of forest ecosystems, despite claims to restoration and forest health. Already our forests are under extreme duress from deforestation, insects, pathogens and climate change. Rather than address these critical problems created by poorly regulated global trade, bad forestry practices, and the unknowns of changing climates, GE trees add another unpredictable threat.

Theresa Church is the Assistant Director of Global Justice Ecology Project and is on the Campaign to Stop GE Trees Steering Committee.

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