American chestnut tree in Vermont.  Photo: Petermann

A Controversial Tree? For Good Reason

A Response to the article “The Most Controversial Tree in the World” by Rowan Jacobsen printed in the Pacific Standard

By Anne Petermann

In re-reading the July 24 article, “The Most Controversial Tree in the World,” by Rowan Jacobsen, I was struck by the author’s deep appreciation for trees as well as his fundamental misunderstanding of the issues surrounding the development of genetically engineered American chestnut trees.

The author waxes poetic about the former grandeur of the American chestnut tree while repeating much of the disinformation promoted by the researchers who are developing a genetically engineered facsimile designed to resist a blight introduced from Asia.  Most of his article seems to be a direct challenge to a scientific white paper written by Dr. Rachel Smolker and me, which outlines why the plan to release this genetically engineered (GE) tree into wild forest ecosystems will likely have long-term consequences and risks that cannot be known in advance.  After all, these trees can live 200 years or more.

Jacobsen dismisses the risks of releasing GE American chestnut trees by arguing that our forests are not really natural–he calls them “botanical gardens”– and that humans are all just genetically modified organisms (GMOs) anyway.  Why would he so glibly dismiss the scientific information we carefully documented in the report? To undercut public opposition. As Jacobsen himself points out, “Given the current climate of anti-GMO sentiment around the world, it seems unlikely that any new commercial GMO trees will find public acceptance.”

Industry is using the beleaguered American chestnut as the test tree for convincing a wary public of the value of GE.  Largely wiped out in late nineteenth and early twentieth century by logging followed by an introduced chestnut blight, and then more logging, the American chestnut is now being used as the poster tree to promote genetic engineering. If Jacobsen honestly thinks that the American chestnut is a uniquely benevolent project set apart from the corporate project of GE trees, he is quite naïve. Industry needs the GE chestnut to push forward commercial plantations of GE poplar, pine and eucalyptus.  And as GE chestnut researcher Scott Merkel points out, the GE American chestnut, with its highly desired wood and valuable chestnuts, is also a likely candidate for commercialization–into large monoculture plantations.

Jacobsen has evidently paid close attention to the rebuttal to our report by GE American chestnut researchers, including William Powell of the SUNY Syracuse College of Environmental Science & Forestry, as he repeats his claim that “early support [by Monsanto, ArborGen and Duke Energy, among others] …turned out to be relatively minor…”. In truth (according to Powell’s own annual reports) between 2008 and 2017, Powell’s project received 40% of its funding directly from corporations or from corporate-influenced consortia (the latest in 2017).  Monsanto (now Bayer) needs an example of GE for the public good.  ArborGen needs the path paved for the other GE trees it is developing.

As part of this effort to win over regulators and the public to support the unprecedented release of a GE organism into the wild to spread freely without monitoring or regulation, cynics are insisting that the American chestnut will go extinct without genetic engineering to save it. There are, however, ongoing efforts to bring back the tree through traditional breeding of 100% pure American chestnuts (see the work of the American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation).  And there are still millions of American chestnuts in the forest evolving their own resistance.  The American chestnut would have had a better chance at developing natural resistance if not for the haste to log out unaffected trees in fear they would become infected.  In her book, American Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree Susan Frienkel describes the moment that Phil Rutter, Founding President of the American Chestnut Foundation realized this. “One day, deep in the University of Minnesota library stacks, Rutter stumbled across a 1920 U.S. Forest Service publication that urged landowners to cut down any chestnuts they owned–dead or alive.  All at once, he understood why virtually no mature chestnuts had survived the blight.  They’d never been given the chance.  Rutter had always been certain some other factor played a hand in the chestnut’s demise.  That other factor “turned out to be us.”

Research to genetically engineer blight resistance into the American chestnut has been going on for 30 years.  For one single species of tree.  There are over 450 invasive Tree-damaging pests that have been introduced to US forests due to global trade and travel, according to a recent study.

It seems Jacobsen cannot see the forest for the GE trees.  Genetic engineering cannot address the growing problem of invasive pests and pathogens, nor the problems of climate change or over-logging. It may, however, contribute to the demise of the forests in ways we cannot even imagine.  These GE American chestnut trees, after all, have never existed in the forest and we have no idea what impacts they will have.  How will they affect the millions of wild American chestnuts that still remain in the forest?  The few short term risk assessment studies, carried out by the same researchers who have a vested interest in their outcomes, cannot determine the impacts that these GE trees will have on the forest ecosystem – on wildlife, birds, pollinators, or even other American chestnuts – 25, 50 or 100 years from now.

I love the forest which is why I have worked all my life to protect them.  I want to give them a fighting chance. To do that, we have to address the root causes of the threats they face: over-consumption of wood products, global trade of law logs and woodchips, accelerating logging, and climate change. We certainly should not add to the pressures on forests by introducing the unknown and unknowable risks of a genetically engineered tree–especially when it will open the door to other GE trees.

Anne Petermann is the Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project and the Coordinator of the international Campaign to STOP GE Trees.  She is based in Buffalo, NY.