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

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! 

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! 



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Brett this is one where we will have to disagree. I fell in love with the Chestnut as a boy. I would play with boxes full of them from the tree outside, I knew them as horse chestnuts. I now raise some of the B3F3 chestnuts from the American Chestnut Foundation along with some Chinese Chestnuts. I too would love to see them restored within my lifetime however I see the failings of the GMO ideas in other areas of farming. The problem is the "real" genes in place now have been naturally selected in real world conditions for countless years. We pretend that just because we can splice a gene that we also know all the other functions that gene serves, and the fact is that we don't. And as a living creature it could care less what we know or don't it wants to live and it will pollinate. Once the genie is out of the bottle we can't get it back inside. It is out there for good. I would rather forego my dream and hope that someday we could do it with cross breeding then push it and get a mistake. Just my two cents.

My criticism on GMO's is not the GMO's themselves but what the GMO's do, in most case that means an ever increasing use of Glyphosate.  I believe in certain uses of Glyphosate, but now we have created resistance and more crops in the rotation leading to an ever increasing use which may have some very bad consequences that I won't get into.  That said, I don't see that as a problem with GMO Chestnut trees.

Thanks Brett,

The article states that horizontal gene transfer via virus/bacterial transmission is normal in nature. I did a quick search and found it does occur in single cell bacteria but did not find an instance of it occurring in more developed (trees/humans/etc) organisms. Can you find references documenting the occurrence and examples of this?

GMO is a new thing to most people, and what has turned off most is the way Monsanto et al use it to control the food supply with total disregard for consequences. For example (and you can find these studies) GM crops have 7% reduced yield, increased requirements for pesticide use, fertilizer use and irrigation. Wild weeds are taking in the GM organisms which means that new GM plants need to be made and new, more effective (more toxic?) sprays developed and used. Agent Orange is being considered (used already?) in South America.

And the human health consequences of GMO crops are another thing. Every GM study in the US (short term studies, conducted by the companies or sponsored by them) shows little to no consequences in the short term. HOWEVER, there are over 500 studies in Europe/Russia showing health effects from liver problems to death. These are not minor "side effects", they are major health issues. If GM is so safe why cant European / Russian scientists replicate the US manufacturer studies? that is the point of the scientific method; hypothesis, experiment, etc. then replicate the studies. During that replication the scientists are not trying to "prove" what was done, they try to disprove the theory, show the holes in it. In this way (kinda like culling/pruning) we arrive at a more correct theory.

Lots more but my point is that though GM Chestnuts may be fine and dandy, because of the devious/criminal methods used by big US corporations to push GM crops and increase THEIR profits, many are concerned and distrustful of anything GM - a case of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater...


Can't disagree with the points made above.  Just sharing news on ESF's program to bring back the American Chestnut.  Personally, I don't lump this project and it's goal into the same basket as planting tens of millions of acres per year of GMO row crops.  If these trees are eventually made available to the public, I plan to plant some on our farm - just as I continue to fill the gas tank in my car despite my knowledge of the downside to using fossil fuels.

some good new (maybe?) for those of you holding a special spot in your silvopastures for American Chestnuts

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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