GMO American Chestnuts - will the King of the Eastern Forests return?

copied over from the: forum...

Since I first became obsessed with trees and forests and set out on a path to become a forester ~ 30 years ago, I have dreamed of someday seeing the return of the American Chestnut.  Every rare encounter with a sizeable specimen that has - for the time being - escaped the blight leaves me fascinated and thinking of what used to be (see picture at the end).  Over the years I have left numerous special spots around the farm devoid of trees hoping that someday I would have the chance to fill them with American Chestnuts in something more than an exercise in futility.

A friend forwarded the article below about the criticism of ESF's work with a genetically-engineered American Chestnut.  Although I don't have strong feelings one way or another on the GMO debate (I do, however, believe the debate is more complex than simply saying "no, it's too dangerous", or "yes, all is well"), I can't help but take the bait and comment on some comments (blue font).  Two disclaimers: 1) comments are made by Brett the private citizen farmer/forester; and 2) I'm not trying to tell anyone else what they should think.  This is a forum for open, healthy and friendly discussion on all-things silvopasture!  (or in this case, woodlot management) 

Genetic-engineering critics open fire on American chestnut breakthrough at SUNY ESF

Syracuse, N.Y. -- Critics of genetically modified organisms are criticizing SUNY ESF's announcement that it had genetically engineered an American chestnut tree resistant to blight.

"Genetically engineered chestnuts and other trees are an unnecessary, undesirable, and hazardous product of the techno-obsessed mindset that assumes genetic codes are like Lego sets that can be engineered to our specifications," said Rachel Smolker, a member of the Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees, in a statement issued today. "The impacts of these engineered chestnuts will be completely unpredictable."

 "Completely unpredictable"  Really?  I can think of a lot of positive impacts from restoring a keystone species throughout its natural range".  Show me some verifiable facts and figures on the cons, then I'll do my own cost:benefit analysis.  BTW, I looked at the Global Justice website and noticed that the link to their "fact sheet" was broken.

After 25 years of research, scientists at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry announced last month they had created a new strain of blight-resistant American chestnut that could restore the once-abundant tree to the forest. Researchers said they had inserted a wheat gene that could help chestnuts withstand the blight that wiped out up to 5 billion of the trees in the United States.

The Global Justice Ecology Project has also criticized the SUNY-ESF research, saying it had been supported in part by corporations who want to profit from genetically engineered crops, including Monsanto and ArborGen.

"A look at the partners and funders of this program at SUNY ESF over the years reveals some very disturbing bedfellows," said the group's executive director, Anne Petermann, in an article titled "This Holiday Season say NO to GMO Chestnuts." 

Most, if not all organizations, have "bedfellows" that others may find "disturbing", including the Global Justice Ecology Project.

ESF's American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project website lists Monsanto and ArborGen as donors.

Who do folks think fund a lot of today's research?  And why wouldn't a company want to fund research that they could benefit and make a profit from?  Does that automatically make it "bad"?  Government funding of research has been on the decline for years - we get what we paid for.

The latest criticism follows a letter to the editor to last month, in which Martha Crouch, a biologist with the Center for Food Safety, said release of the tree in the wild is premature. 

Not for me - I've been waiting 30 years

"The researchers' dream could become a nightmare if something goes wrong," Crouch wrote. "Genetically engineered trees will be difficult to recall once they spread." 

First, I hope the American Chestnut does in fact spread someday, even if the solution isn't ideologically perfect. Second, from a realistic viewpoint It would take decades for the initial thousands of outplanted trees to become established and reach a reproductive capacity that could result in any significant regeneration.  If, in that time, sound science reveals that GMOs are too hot to handle, it shouldn't be that difficult to eradicate the measly number of GE chestnuts that are on the landscape.  I have some hungry deer and livestock on our farm that would gladly help with the effort.  In the meantime, I'm not going to lose sleep worrying about this scenario.  I feel that my time would be better spent worrying about the wheat gene in question "contaminating" the environment via, say, wheat plants.  But as far as I can tell, this is a single, naturally-occurring gene found throughout the world already in the form of many millions of acres of many trillions of wheat plants. Those numbers are too large for me to comprehend, so I'm going to take this off my list of issues that currently keep me awake at night - at least until Hollywood makes a movie about it. 

One Washington Post columnist has come to the defense of the SUNY ESF research, saying the restoration of the tree could provide an important source of food in the nutrient-rich nuts -- the kind that used to be roasted like in that Christmas song.

"It wasn't created for personal profit or for the benefit of corporations or farmers," wrote columnist Tamar Haspel. "It contributes to a wholesome, healthful diet. And it's intended solely for the public good."

The SUNY-ESF project needs the approval of several federal agencies before trees could be planted in the wild. That process could take five years, said the lead researchers, Charles Maynard and William Powell. In the meantime, SUNY ESF is seeking tax-deductible donations to plant up to 10,000 chestnut trees.

Sign me up! 

Once upon a time, the American chestnut was king.

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Thanks for sharing the article (and your thoughts).  For those who would like a good read that provides some historical background on the efforts to save the chestnut I recommend Susan Freinkel's "The American Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree".



  Leaving a brief reply because I just discorvered your review/comments about the GMO American Chestnuts.bI will add other  supporting information in the next few days.

  I often agree with the Global Justice Ecology Project, however there article on the GMO chestnuts wasn't their best effort. I would encourage you to engage them here.

  My own criticsm of the GMO project is based on:1) the lack of durability of single gene resistance, 2) traditional backcrossing of Chinese to American has produced several cultivars that are adapted regionally and are being tested, and 3) one of the original board members of the New York Chapter stated something to the effect that he didn't want any Chinese genes contaminating the American Chestnut. The 3rd is particularly racist and ignorant of the fact that the chestnuts shared common ancestors.

  On the second point the backcrosses over the last 30 years are currently in the 3rd and 4th generation and show strong resistance and adaptibility to diverse climates. The resulting progeny are 98%-99% American. 

A briedfexplanation of backcross method and bilt in multiple resistance.

Hi Brett,

Thanks for your comments regarding our press release warning of the dangers of genetically engineered American chestnuts.  Just by way of some background, I have been working on forest protection since 1989 and on the risks and dangers of GE trees since 1999.  Global Justice Ecology Project and the Campaign to STOP GE Trees have allied groups, as well as scientists, foresters, geneticists, Indigenous Peoples who join us in our rejection of all GE trees.  There is simply too little known about forest ecology (as any forest ecologist knows) and especially little known about the long term impacts of genetic engineering to assume that releasing GE trees into the environment is a safe and good idea.  Our position is that there are far too many unknowns to allow such potentially disastrous risks to be taken.  

And yes, SUNY ESF having the financial backing of corporations who stand to profit from the legalization of GE trees raises some serious red flags about their claims to want to "restore" forests.  Especially since ArborGen is a subsidiary of multinational timber companies.

As for your accusation that GJEP gets its funding from "strange bedfellows," I wish you would enlighten me.


Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project

Brett, thanks for your interest in the American chestnut. I share this "obsession", obviously.

I noticed a couple of comments which I have to respond to:

-Just because Monsanto and arborgen had something to do with the development of the resistant GMO does not immediately imply that the tree is "evil". Come on, folks.

- There is little reason to believe that just because there is only one gene being used to combat the blight, the blight will evolve to work around the cure. The gene counteracts the precise way the blight works, that is it counteracts oxalic acid the blight forms. The blight would have to become an entirely different fungi for the lack of durability argument to be valid. This anti oxidase strategy simply cuts blight off at the knees.

-I get tired of the attitude that every GMO is evil. Why is it evil? Just because!!!!!!!!!!!!

-Getting this GMO tree through the approval process with the feds will be more of a political hurdle that a scientific one.

That's what really scares me. Getting turned down for valid concerns is what should happen, if it IS a valid concern.

"Just because" is not a valid concern.

- A materialized, and disappointing "just because" is the USFS backing of the Chinese -American hybridization strategy.

This has been a failure and will continue to be a failure. It seems to be another "just because".

An update on American Chestnut breeding

American chestnut rescue will succeed

PHILADELPHIA — The nearly century-old effort to employ selective breeding to rescue the American chestnut, which has been rendered functionally extinct by an introduced disease -- Chestnut blight, eventually will succeed, but it will take longer than many people expect. That is the gist of find...




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