–Orin Langelle, Founder and Strategic Communications Director, Global Justice Ecology Project
Genetically engineered trees a risk to environment
The Daily Orange 26, February 2020
According to a recent D.O. article, researchers are working to distribute blight-resistant American chestnut trees to the public. Researcher William Powell says, “Restoration is not going to happen by us — it’s going to happen by the public,” conveniently passing the blame to the public should his dangerous and unproven experiment go haywire.
Historically, the public has opposed genetically engineered trees, including poplar and eucalyptus. The nostalgia of the American chestnut is being used to sway the public’s rejection of GE trees, and as a test case to promote biotechnology under the guise of restoring forest health. Powell states, “Our forests’ health is really declining…We need to start reversing those trends.”
His answer to “reversing those trends” is the unregulated release of the GE American chestnut. Scientists are seeking permission from Trump’s USDA to deregulate a GE American chestnut tree designed to be planted in wild forest ecosystems with the intention of cross-breeding wild American chestnuts. If approved, this GE tree could spread uncontrollably. This is completely unprecedented. No GMO plant has ever been released into the wild with the intention of contaminating wild relatives.
The development of GE trees is overwhelmingly oriented toward commercial and industrial plantation forestry. This comes at a time when 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, biotechnology adds another unpredictable threat.
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. There’s no way to assess the future impacts of a GE tree with a lifespan of 200 years.
Researchers like Powell ignore the intelligence of forest ecosystems, despite claims to restoration and forest health. What will happen to these GE trees as they mature in a highly complex and interconnected wild ecosystem? Add in the stresses of increasingly unpredictable weather, such as drought or heat waves, and it is likely that the desired trait would ultimately fail. Researchers admit this possibility.