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The initial public comment period has closed.

Petition for Determination of Nonregulated Status for Blight-Resistant Darling 58 American Chestnut

Learn more about the issues and concerns of the genetically engineered (GE) American chestnut tree here.

Researchers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) are requesting USDA approval to plant genetically engineered American chestnut trees throughout our forests, where they would spread freely in a massive uncontrolled experiment.

 If approved, this would be the first GE forest tree approved for unrestricted planting in North America, and the first-ever genetically modified organism (GMO) released to spread into wild ecosystems. 

As described in our white paper, there are no long-term risk assessments of the impact of these GE trees on forests, wildlife, pollinators or soils and it is not possible to conduct such assessments on a tree known historically to live hundreds of years.

If approved, the precedent set by the GE American chestnut tree would open the door to other GE trees such as poplar, pine and even eucalyptus, developed expressly for industrial timber plantations, which use vast quantities of fresh water, rely heavily on toxic chemicals and threaten to replace forests and dispace rural and Indigenous communities globally. 

People around the world have opposed GE trees for decades.

We now need another united front to stop this new GE tree threat and tell the USDA to reject GE American chestnuts. The USDA has opened a 60-day public comment period on this proposal. Please participate in this critical campaign by telling the USDA to reject the approval of GE American chestnut trees.

Genewatch uk submission

Genewatch UK has submitted an objection to a petition to the USDA to deregulate GM American Chestnut trees, which are intended to be resistant to chestnut blight. Some main points from the objection are:

  • The Petition is premature, due to lack of any long-term data and the many significant gaps in the data that is available.
  • The GM American Chestnut trees can act as a reservoir for blight, posing a serious risk of infection to native and commercially planted trees, i.e. a plant pest risk.
  • The applicants have not established whether the GM trees will show long-term blight tolerance or be able to survive and grow to canopy trees; however, poorly growing (or dying/dead) GM trees will still pose a plant pest risk and may remain part of ecosystems for centuries.
  • Numerous long-term ecological risks have not been assessed.
  • GM chestnuts will find their way into the food chain, but no food safety assessment has been made and the GM chestnuts will be unlabelled and untraceable.

Sample public comments (use the samples below to create your own public comment)

Sample 1 

I oppose the proposed approval of genetically engineered forest trees in the United States, and urge the USDA to deny the petition from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) to approve the genetically engineered Blight-Resistant Darling 58 (D58) American Chestnut.

The genetically engineered American chestnut submitted for review uses an oxalate oxidase enzyme (OxO) from wheat that appears to limit, but not destroy, the spread of chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) on juvenile American chestnut trees. While the OxO enzymes appear to be non-toxic, all relied-upon testing regarding the D58 trees is insufficient, at best. 

All D58 testing was executed within a very short timeframe and was done on young trees, less than 5 years old, and do not reflect the pre-blight lifespan of the wild American chestnut. For example, young trees are known to be more resistant to blight. And American chestnut trees can live for well over 200 years and face fluctuating environmental conditions over their lifespans-drought, flood, heat, pests and the basic changes associated with aging. All these factors could influence how genes are expressed over time and whether or not the trees will retain blight resistance and withstand other challenges. We cannot rely on extrapolation from test results from young trees to assume that blight resistance will be functional over a longer period and under the variable conditions of natural forests. It would be irresponsible to release this genetically engineered tree into the wild without even knowing if they will have the same long lifespan of their wild American chestnut counterparts. 

There is simply no way to know if the OxO enzyme will remain safe and effective over time, posing a serious environmental threat to forest ecosystems and wildlife that cannot be prevented. The cumulative impacts from introducing this organism have not been thoroughly considered and I strongly urge the USDA to reject this application. 

Sample 2 

I oppose the proposed approval of genetically engineered forest trees in the United States, and urge the USDA to deny the petition from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) to approve the genetically engineered Blight-Resistant Darling 58 (D58) American Chestnut.

The project to genetically engineer American chestnut trees has oversimplified the science and certainty involved in engineering pathogen resistance. The research on the D58 American chestnut has occurred against a backdrop of efforts by many other researchers to genetically engineer agricultural crop plants to be resistant to viral, bacterial and fungal pathogens. However, successful engineering of pathogen resistance has been remarkably elusive.

A single gene construct, the oxalate oxidase enzyme (OxO) from wheat, is unlikely to be effective on its own in conferring durable blight resistance. One frequent problem is that engineering resistance to one pathogen, often leaves plants more susceptible to other pathogens or stresses, or reduces plant growth significantly. Another problem is the loss of pathogen resistance over time. A modification that may initially be effective can be rendered ineffective as the pathogen adapts. Given such limited success with commonly cultivated and short-lived domestic crop plants, the prospects for successful and durable engineering of fungal pathogen resistance into a long-lived wild forest tree species appear remote.

We do not know how genetically engineered trees might behave in the diverse and changing context of natural forests over long periods of time, nor will we know even after they are released. This poses many significant impacts and risks to our native forest ecosystems.

I strongly urge the USDA to reject this application.

Sample 3 

I oppose the proposed approval of genetically engineered forest trees in the United States, and urge the USDA to deny the petition from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) to approve the genetically engineered Blight-Resistant Darling 58 (D58) American Chestnut.

The genetically engineered American chestnut raises particular concerns in relation to Indigenous peoples’ territorial sovereignty, and the application of the UN’s Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) requirement when dealing with issues impacting Indigenous peoples or their territories. Granting nonregulated status to D58 trees will not give proper consideration to Indigenous peoples whose traditional lands fall within the historical range of American chestnut trees and the potential propagation of their genetically engineered counterparts. 

Indigenous peoples have not yet consented to the release of this genetically engineered tree and the spread of D58 trees onto their territories is a violation of the FPIC mandate. Indigenous peoples in the regions of proposed D58 releases have expressed concern that unregulated distribution of a genetically engineered tree would violate their sovereign right to keep their territories free from genetically modified organisms. If released, genetically engineered American chestnuts will spread uncontrolled and will not respect territorial borders. Each step taken in this direction has the potential to further threaten biodiversity already weakened by unchecked natural resource exploitation.

I demand the USDA prohibit release of genetically engineered trees and reject this application.

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