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Engineering Chestnut Trees? Biotechnology Takes a Walk in the Woods

GMO chestnuts appear to be a “Trojan horse” intended to win over a public averse to GMO trees. They should be resisted.

(Photo: Harold Neal)

As the holiday season approaches, I just can’t keep those traditional Christmas tunes out of my head: “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” “12 Days of Christmas,” and of course “The Christmas Song,” with its famous opening line, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”

I grew up in New York. My family used to venture into the city during the Christmas season, and we really did purchase little bags of roasted chestnuts from street vendors. I just love the smell and the sweet, earthy flavor of chestnuts. Reminiscing about that led me to think about food, forests and GMOs.

Americans have for far too long been used as guinea pigs by the biotechnology industry – consuming far more GMO containing food than any other country, whether we want to or not.

Vermont, where I live, recently passed the nation’s first GMO labeling law. Monsanto is now suing the state (via the Grocery Manufacturers Association). Several other states – Oregon, California, Washington and Colorado – have similarly tried to pass legislation and faced intimidation by Monsanto and their ilk, which have spent more than $100 million fighting these state labeling initiatives. But our tiny rural state, with only just over half a million residents, is not backing down (and by the way, Merry Christmas, you can contribute to support the fight here).

Labeling may not be the ultimate solution to GMO contamination of our food and agriculture, but it is a step that will at least enable people to make informed choices. Americans have for far too long been used as guinea pigs by the biotechnology industry – consuming far more GMO containing food than any other country, whether we want to or not. Europe is meanwhile fighting its own battle over the transatlantic trade agreement provisions (now being negotiated behind closed doors) that aim to undermine European aversion to GMOs.

It happens that I just returned from two weeks of meetings in Paraguay where I witnessed the impact of expanding GMO soya on the landscape and livelihoods of campesinos. It was not a pretty sight. Vast landscapes were entirely denuded of forests (in spite of a “zero deforestation” law on the books) and planted in soy, mostly engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, as far as the eye can see. Much of it is destined for cattle feed. The GMO soya landscape is sprayed over and over again each year with Roundup and various other agrotoxins. Children are sprayed to death! People are sick and dying from the onslaught. Many have fled to live in dire poverty in slums at the edge of the city. Some remain, bravely clinging to tiny plots of hard-won and carefully tended food-producing land. They live under siege, their lives threatened by those who would seek to take over their land to further expand the soya empire. At the time of my visit, protests were underway around the country, as people have no option other than to mobilize resistance to the death grip that Monsanto holds on them. I was awed by their courage and determination.

Now these global struggles against GMOs are entering our forests as well as our food and agricultural land.

Now these global struggles against GMOs are entering our forests as well as our food and agricultural land. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering deregulation of GMO eucalyptus developed by Arborgen, which they aim to spread across the southern United States, in part to meet rising demand for “biomass” to burn as a result of misdirected subsidies and targets for renewable energy that includes burning trees. Meanwhile, the American Chestnut Foundation is promoting the idea that we should deliberately contaminate what remains of wild chestnuts with a GMO chestnut engineered to (supposedly) resist the chestnut blight fungus that nearly exterminated the species back in the early part of the 20th century. Their proclaimed goal is to restore chestnuts to their former glorious role as a keystone species in the eastern forests.

American chestnuts dominated the eastern forest canopy, with more than 4 billion mature trees. They produced far more nuts, more reliably and way more tasty than oaks. Chestnuts were a primary source of food for both human and nonhuman inhabitants of the eastern forests. They were also an important source of very good quality wood, brought under the axe blade with zeal. Since the chestnuts underwent near extermination, a few hardy surviving trees still remain, either somehow resistant to, or isolated enough to avoid exposure to the blight. The roots from some of the trees that succumbed still remain scattered around in some forests, and from time to time sprout anew and grow for some years before they (usually) become infected and again succumb to the blight. They are critical stewards of the chestnut gene pool, along with some growers who have gone to great lengths to preserve the native trees and breed resistant strains.

This new effort to employ genetic engineering contributes what is to my mind, a sinister twist. The scientists, based at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), are growing and testing chestnuts that have an alien gene forced into their DNA code. The inserted gene is derived from wheat and the developers argue that it is no problem to eat GMO chestnuts because after all we eat wheat regularly.

But genes are not “genes” in the simplistic way we are often taught, where each codes for one characteristic – always and forever! How a gene “behaves,” that is what effect it has on the organism it is in, depends altogether on context. Context includes the other genes in the genome, which themselves may or may not be expressed depending on a number of factors. Context also includes the environment, which can vary hugely over time. Context also depends on life stage – and for trees that can be a long time. Reliably predicting what will happen when an alien gene is inserted into an organism where it previously never existed is notoriously difficult. Yet we are so often led to believe it is simple and straightforward.

What does it mean to insert a wheat gene into a chestnut tree? The only really honest answer to that question is that we really do not know.

In spite of the arrogant, “know-it-all” rhetoric of the biotechnology industry, the fact is that we are only beginning to understand the complexity of genetics. New discoveries are made on a regular basis, some of which have very profound and broad implications. For an example from microbial genetics, (the target of new and very risky “synthetic biology,” also known as genetic engineering on steroids) see the recent article entitled “Microbes Defy Rules of DNA Code.”

What does it mean to insert a wheat gene into a chestnut tree? The only really honest answer to that question is that we really do not know. William A. Powell and colleagues at SUNY ESF argue that the trees are more resistant to blight and therefore will enable restoration of the species. While they convey the basic message that a wheat gene inserted into chestnuts is no more risky than eating a piece of toast, and will allow glorious restoration of chestnuts, this is clearly just PR. The wheat gene may be their first testing ground to achieve deregulation, but ultimately they will likely require further genetic engineering to have any hope of achieving successful resistance. Few scientists would bet on a single gene to confer resistance to a fungal pathogen. A review of attempts to engineer pathogen resistance into food crops concludes it hasn’t worked even with multigene approaches, and in many cases has resulted in greater susceptibility to other pathogens. Since trees live for hundreds of years, reliable testing would require results from trees at least several decades old.

In response to a recent article touting the benefits of GMO chestnuts, consulting scientist Martha Crouch, from the Center for Food Safety, wrote:

Genetically engineered chestnuts? Not so fast.

Imagine: “Bald eagles genetically engineered with pigeon genes to withstand pesticides.” Or, “Scientists insert synthetic DNA into Florida panthers to resist deadly virus.”

Many conservationists would balk at interfering with wild animals in such an extreme way – directly manipulating their very nature by adding genes from unrelated species.

The same should apply to wild trees, she argues.

Indeed, biotechnologists often seem baffled by the resistance they meet from ordinary people. They believe that life is simply an engineering project, that genes, like Legos, can be reorganized and transferred across species boundaries with predictable desired results. How can we be “against” restoring American chestnuts they ask? Indeed most ordinary folks, and those who are unfamiliar with genetics and ecology would not be opposed at all to the idea of introducing GMO chestnuts to restore the species. But ordinary folks with some understanding of genetics and ecology, even at an intuitive level, as well as those scientists with a holistic ecological and evolutionary understanding, recognize that life is terrifically messy, unpredictable, changeable, wondrously complex, mysterious and worthy of humility and respect. It cannot be reduced to a set of interchangeable “parts” and is for the most part just the opposite of a Lego set.

The history of genetic engineering of food crops illustrates how things have not worked out as planned. For many years, thanks to Monsanto et al., we have been growing industrial monocultures of soya and other crops engineered with resistance to the herbicide glyphosate and various other pesticides and herbicides. Spraying of these agrotoxins has been incredibly wonton, and is now increasingly linked to a variety of health, ecological and social harms (witness Paraguay). Additionally, the targeted weeds and pests have responded by evolving resistance to the toxins.

Now we are going to spray our food with 2,4,D and dicamba, known to cause cancers, birth defects and more, because glyphosate resistant engineered crops are no longer sufficient?

In response to Roundup resistant weeds, Dow Agrosciences is seeking approval for the use of an even more dangerous system: soya engineered to resist spraying with 2,4-D, the toxin used along with 2,4,5-T to produce Agent Orange, the toxin used as an agent of biological warfare to defoliate Vietnam, leaving behind a legacy of horrible birth defects and disease. And Monsanto has responded by introducing soya resistant to the extremely toxic herbicide, dicamba.

Now we are going to spray our food with 2,4,D and dicamba, known to cause cancers, birth defects and more, because glyphosate resistant engineered crops are no longer sufficient? This is just one example of the “treadmill” of crop engineering. The Franken-creations of crop biotechnologists soon, or eventually, stop behaving according to plan, so the engineers have to escalate their engineering. It’s profitable for those companies, Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta et al., but hey look, this is our food we are talking about. We eat this stuff and so do our kids and this is after all the only life-sustaining planet within sight!

That will no doubt elicit comments accusing me of being a granola-eating, tree-hugging Luddite. Indeed, I say, bring it on!

In my view, life on earth is the product of a long and elaborate history that began with the Big Bang or “whatever” set the universe into motion. That history has unfolded through interactions between the fundamental elements of matter and between each and every organism that came into being. It is a product of the passage of time and the shifting landscapes of earth history. By analogy, it is much like a fantastically intricate tapestry, where each thread carried throughout, is absolutely integral to the whole. That shared history is written not in spun and dyed fibers but in the language of DNA. It is not to be tampered with or rewritten. It is our common heritage that defines for us our “place” in the world, and that we should treasure and protect.

I support efforts to restore American chestnuts. That would be grand. But I do not support using genetic engineering to achieve that goal.

First of all, it is unlikely to work, as planned over time.

Second, since the aim is to intentionally contaminate remaining American chestnuts, it will have far reaching and irreversible consequences, including undermining efforts to restore chestnuts without using genetic engineering.

Third, GMO chestnuts appear to be a “Trojan horse” intended to win over a public averse to GMO trees. The fact that SUNY ESF and the American Chestnut Foundation have support from both Arborgen (developer of the pending GMO eucalyptus and one of the major players in tree biotechnology) and Monsanto Foundation is telling.

Far too often we initiate “solutions” to the problems we create that turn out ultimately to only result in yet more problems. Maybe it’s time to be more humble and stop assuming we can “outsmart” nature?

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