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Defective genetically engineered American chestnut tree rocked with scandal

Mass-Protest against genetically engineered (GE) trees at an International Union of Forest Research Organizations Tree Biotechnology conference in Asheville, NC in May 2013. Photo: Orin Langelle/GJEP

May 30, 2024 – the importance of our our ten years of dedication to protecting the forests from the risks and unknowns of the genetically engineered American chestnut has been demonstrated through a bombshell article released May 30, 2024 in New York Magazine: The Problem With Darling 58 The fight to save America’s iconic tree has become a civil war.

In December of 2023 it was revealed that the Darling line of America chestnuts that researchers at the American Chestnut Foundation and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry had been hoping would receive quick approval by the USDA for widespread and unmonitored release into forests was defective. It was susceptible to the blight it was engineered to resist, some trees were stunted and sickly and many of them unexpectedly died.

Failed Science

For GJEP and our allies in the Campaign to STOP GE Trees, the failed science behind the GE chestnut was not surprising. For years we pointed out, through articles, presentations and a major report, that GE trees are unpredictable. There is no way to know what will happen as the trees age – in this case they lost their blight resistance – nor is there any way to know what will happen to forest ecosystems if GE trees are released into them. 

In this case, the trees that researchers were ready to deploy into forests were genetically defective.  As pointed out in the article,

“In addition to evidence of lower-than-expected blight resistance, Darling 54’s chromosome tweak causes the deletion of more than 1,000 DNA base pairs, the ultimate effect of which is hard to know. ‘It’s not something you want to deploy into a restoration population,’ [said TACF Chief Conservation Officer Sara Fitzsimmons].”

The article also exposes additional motivations behind the effort to develop the GE American chestnut.

“In 2022, [researchers at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) at the State University of New York] began meeting with American Castanea, a newly formed company whose founders saw a huge opportunity in meeting the intense demand for seedlings they expected to follow deregulation. American Castanea would agree to pay ESF for distribution rights to sell millions of transgenic seedlings worth millions of dollars.”

ESF, though, was undeterred by the startling discovery about [the major problems found with Darling 58/54 and] is forging ahead with getting approval from the FDA and EPA as well.

GJEP in Action: Stopping GE trees for 20 years

GJEP stands in solidarity with Indigenous peoples protesting GE trees at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York City in 2009. Photo: Orin Langelle

For GJEP, May has historically been a month of organizing to protect forests and communities from the risks and dangers of genetically engineered trees.

The first time we spoke to UN delegates about the problem of genetically engineered trees was in May 2004 at the UN Forum on Forests in Switzerland.

In May 2008 we presented to delegates of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn, Germany. We mobilized a major effort for a global ban on GE trees that was supported by every non-governmental organization and Indigenous Peoples organization in attendance, as well as by the entire African delegation and numerous Latin American delegations. Ultimately, we won an important decision from that body warning countries of the dangers of GE trees and urging them to use the Precautionary Approach with regard to GE trees.

In May 2009 we took part in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and stood in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples holding a protest against GE trees outside of the Belgian Embassy due to research going on there to develop commercial GE trees for biofuels.

In May of 2013 we joined with allies to organize the largest ever protest at a major industry conference on genetically engineered trees. Several activists were arrested for disrupting the event.

In May 2014 we organized a protest at an ArborGen event, where a local Indigenous youth disrupted the ArborGen presentation to landowners about GE trees.

And in May 2023 we organized a major international delegation to Brazil to meet with communities impacted by existing industrial tree plantations and threatened by Brazil’s legalizing commercial development of GE eucalyptus trees modified to tolerate the toxic herbicide glyphosate. More on this 3 week delegation here!

These are just a few of the dozens of impactful campaigns, protests and events GJEP has led and/or participated in laser focused on stopping the commercial development of GE trees over our 20 years.  We have been able to do this important work with the support of our donors, to whom we are deeply grateful.

Thank you!

Anne Petermann

Executive Director, GJEP

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