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Rachel Smolker and Anne Petermann    13 June 2019    Editors’ Pick

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The American chestnut is being used as a PR tool for winning over public opinion on the use of biotechnology as a ‘tool of conservation’.

The American chestnut tree was attacked by the fungal pathogen (Cryphonectria parasitica) about a century ago, driving it to functional extinction.

Now, scientists at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) claim to have created, through biotechnology, a resistant American chestnut variety.

They aim to petition the required regulatory agencies (USDA, FDA, EPA) for deregulation of their genetically engineered chestnut in the near future, with the stated goal of “restoring” the species to nature.  

Forest ecosystems

If it is deregulated, the GE chestnut would be the first GE forest tree species to be planted out in forests with the deliberate intention of spreading freely. Monitoring or reversing their spread, once released, would likely be impossible.

Performing valid risk assessments of the potential impacts of GE American chestnut on forests, wildlife, water, soils, pollinators or people, is hampered by our lack of knowledge about both the ecology of the American chestnut and forest ecosystems.  

Furthermore, since American chestnuts can live for more than 200 years, risk factors may change over the tree’s lifetime in unpredictable ways. 

Critically, the choices we make about the GE American chestnut will set a precedent for the future use of biotechnology on other forest tree species and even more broadly, on the use of biotechnology, including new technologies such as gene editing, gene drives etc as “tools for conservation”. 

It is therefore critical that we carefully evaluate the case of the GE American chestnut. Towards that end, we recently published “Biotechnology for Forest Health? The Test Case of the Genetically Engineered American Chestnut”.

Biotechnology in conservation

Our paper was inspired by previous experience with a 2018 National Academy of Sciences study group on “The Potential of Biotechnology to Address Forest Health”. 

The case for using genetically engineered American chestnut for species restoration featured within the NAS study group.  Similarly, GE chestnut has also been featured in other contexts where the potential for using biotechnology in conservation has been evaluated.  

For example, it is presented as a “case study” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature 2019 report “Genetic Frontiers for Conservation: An assessment of synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation”.

We felt compelled to clearly articulate and share our reasons for opposing the GE American chestnut.

Perfect tree

The American chestnut is a much beloved and iconic“perfect tree”. It was once a dominant species along the eastern USA and into Canada.  Prolific nuts reliably provided nutritious and delicious food, and fodder for livestock.

The wood is rot resistant, easy to work with and pleasing to the eye was prized by the timber industry.  

Cryphonectria, “the blight”, was a catastrophe – for the forests and wildlife, and for the human economies, especially those of rural Appalachia, where the seasonal nut harvest was key source of income, and sustenance. 

Restoring the American chestnut is a long-held dream for some people, even as our collective memory of chestnut-filled forests grows dim with the passage of time.  

The American Chestnut Foundation has worked to implement a breeding program that would hybridize American chestnut with the naturally blight resistant Asian chestnut, and then backcross to produce a blight resistance tree that nonetheless preserved the growth characteristics of the American chestnut. 

Hundreds of thousands of hours of painstaking work across many years has gone into this breeding program – a long process that has slowly progressed, albeit with some setbacks along the way. 

Engineering resistance 

The SUNY ESF scientists claim that genetic engineering will provide a faster solution.

After experimenting with various genes and combinations of genes, they have settled on using a gene sequence derived from wheat that causes the tree to produce an enzyme, oxalate oxidase, (aka OxO) (Nelson et al., 2014).  This enzyme inhibits the spread of the fungus once established, making it less lethal to the tree.  

OxO is not uncommon in nature, and has been experimented with in a variety of common crops. In their promotional materials, the scientists are careful to highlight that OxO is common, and that the gene comes from ordinary wheat – conjuring images of saving the chestnut with nothing more dangerous than a tasty slice of buttered toast. 

But will the OxO trait really enable restoration of the species?  This is highly unlikely.  

First of all, engineering resistance to fungal pathogens in general has proven extremely challenging.  Biotechnologists have long struggled to do so with familiar common crops with which, unlike forest tree species, we have plenty of prior experience. 

New defenses

In spite of many, many efforts, only a single fungal pathogen resistant crop is commercially available (the Simplot potato, resistant to late blight).  The problem is that fungi are very good at finding new ways to evade plant defenses.

There is a virtual arms race going on between plants, evolving new defenses, and fungal pathogens, evolving new ways around those defenses. Hence making durable effective resistance is extremely difficult.  

As well, when plants invest in defending against a pathogen, their growth is often stunted or otherwise compromised and they can become more susceptible to other pathogens or stresses they encounter (Collinge et al., 2010).

SUNY ESF’s OxO engineered chestnut trees appear to be resistant to the blight – but only young trees in controlled lab and field trial conditions have been tested. The oldest trees tested to date are only about 15 years old – other more recently developed lines are even younger. 

Yet chestnuts can live for over two hundred years during which time they may experience many diverse conditions – weather extremes, insects and pathogens etc. that could affect the expression of the OxO trait, or other characteristics of the trees.

Unlikely restoration 

We cannot reasonably assume long term durable blight resistance in natural forests based on extrapolation from results on very young trees under controlled and laboratory conditions.  

Even the SUNY scientist most involved with developing the OxO engineered chestnuts, William Powell, openly acknowledges that long term stable resistance to Cryphonectria, based on the OxO trait alone, is unlikely to succeed.  

Powell stated: “Eventually we hope to fortify American chestnuts with many different genes that confer resistance in distinct ways. Then, even if the fungus evolves new weapons against one of the engineered defenses, the trees will not be helpless.”

Another pathogen, Phytophthora cinnamomi, (aka root rot or ink disease) had been killing off American chestnuts in the southern part of their range even before Cryphonectria arrived.  

That pathogen is meanwhile spreading northwards under a warming climate. Scientists agree that restoration of the chestnut would require stacking of multiple traits including for resistance to Phytophthora. The OxO trait alone will not restore American chestnuts.   

Public relations 

So why claim otherwise?  Why rush the GE chestnut into regulatory review when even its own creators recognize it cannot fulfill the goal of species restoration?  

Because the OxO engineered chestnut – using “nothing but a wheat gene” to “restore a beloved iconic species” – is being used as a public relations tool for winning over public opinion toward GE trees more generally, and for the use of biotechnology as a “tool of conservation”.

This is a strategy that biotechnology industry proponents expect will soften public opposition and open up the potential for commercializing a wide array of GE trees.

The GE American chestnut is in fact very explicitly referred to in terms of its value for public relations, and as a “test case”.  

For example, Maud Hinchee, former chief technology officer at tree biotechnology company, ArborGen, and formerly from Monsanto, stated: “We like to support projects that we think might not have commercial value but have huge value to society, like rescuing the chestnut.  It allows the public to see the use of the technology and understand the benefits and risks in something they care about. Chestnuts are a noble cause.”

Test case

Scott Wallinger of paper company MeadWestvaco (now Westrock) stated back in 2005: “This pathway [promoting the GE chestnut as forest restoration] can begin to provide the public with a much more personal sense of the value of forest biotechnology and receptivity to other aspects of genetic engineering.”

The Forest Health Initiative which funds the SUNY ESF GE chestnut project states their aim is to“Advance the country’s understanding and the role of biotechnology to address some of today’s most pressing forest health challenges. The initiative will initially focus on a “test species” and an icon of eastern US forests–the American chestnut.”

And even the American Chestnut Foundation stated“If SUNY ESF is successful in obtaining regulatory approval for its transgenic blight resistant American chestnut trees, then that would pave the way for broader use of transgenic trees in the landscape.”

What “broader use of transgenic trees” can we foresee?  A review of the literature on forest biotechnology reveals that most tree biotechnology research is focused not on addressing “forest health” for the public good, but on ways to engineer trees for commercial and industrial processes and profitability.  

Forest health

A review of forest biotechnology published in 2018 states: “Genetic engineering of trees to improve productivity, wood quality and resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses has been the primary goal of the forest biotechnology community for decades.

“Examples include novel methods for lignin modification, solutions for long-standing problems related to pathogen resistance, modifications to flowering onset and fertility and drought and freeze tolerance.” (Chang et al., 2018)

Most efforts to address “forest health” are focused on species of commercial interest, which are often grown in industrial monoculture plantations, and therefore more vulnerable to a variety of pests, pathogens and health threats.

For example, there has been considerable research focussed on engineering resistance to insect pests in commercially important species such as pine, poplar and eucalyptus (Balestrazzi et al., 2006).

Meanwhile, with increasing awareness of the dangers inherent to using fossil fuels, burning wood is heavily subsidized (alongside solar panels and wind turbines) as renewable energy, and falsely accounted as “carbon neutral”.

Biofuels

Efforts to convert wood into liquid transportation fuels have so far largely failed to attain commercial scale in spite of massive investments.

Turning trees into biofuels, bioplastics etc. largely depends not only on genetically engineering specific characteristics into the trees, but also on engineering microbes that produce enzymes needed to break down, access and ferment the sugars in wood.  

A 2017 review, titled Biotechnology for bioenergy dedicated trees: meeting future energy needs points to eucalyptus, pine, poplar and willow as the species of most commercial interest, with biotechnology research focused on enhanced growth and yield, altered wood properties, side adaptability and stress tolerance, and the alteration of lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose for effective biorefinery conversion to cellulosic biofuels (Al-Ahmad, 2018).

In sum, there is much riding on winning over public opinion on GE trees.     

This is why such entities as Duke Energy, ArborGen and Monsanto, as well as various multinational timber corporations, are among those funding or promoting the GE chestnut.

Idealism and integrity

The Forest Health Initiative, which receives funding from some of the above, and in turn has provided large grants to the SUNY ESF research, stated: “Biotech trees will find their place in this world, providing fiber, fuel, and even sustainable comfort food (e.g. biotech chestnuts roasting on an open fire).

“This is an industry to watch as it evolves toward responsible use and takes its place in the pipeline of sustainable biotech products.” 

Enthusiasm for GE American chestnuts has so far been underwhelming. Recently, board members of the Massachusetts/Rhode Island chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, Lois Breault-Melican and her husband, Denis M. Melican resigned in protest against the organizations’ embrace of SUNY ESF’s GE American chestnut. 

The couple had worked for over 16 years on backcross breeding of resistant American chestnuts.  

Breault-Melican stated: “We are unwilling to lift a finger, donate a nickel or spend one minute of our time assisting the development of genetically engineered trees or using the American chestnut to promote biotechnology in forests as any kind of benefit to the environment.

“The GE American chestnut is draining the idealism and integrity from TACF.”

Global protests 

Indeed, public opinion has long been solidly opposed to GE trees in general, and remains a significant barrier to their release.

A number of protests have taken place around the world where GE trees have been tested.  Women from social movements in Brazil including the MST (landless worker’s movement), cause the destruction of GE tree seedlings belonging to Futuragene in Brazil in 2016. 

The Campaign to Stop GE Trees was founded in 2014 and has both national and international presence.

When ArborGen sought to field test their GE eucalyptus in the US, several organizations filed a legal suit challenging the planned field trials in 2010.

And when the USDA issued a draft Environmental Impact Statement recommending approving deregulation of ArborGen’s GE eucalyptus in 2017, over 284,000 people signed onto or submitted their own comments opposing deregulation of the GE eucalyptus. To date, no final EIS has been issued by USDA and the petition for deregulation appears to be languishing.

Slippery slope

Forest certification bodies including Forest Stewardship Council, the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative have banned the use of GE trees and their products. The 2008 decision IX/5 (1) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity Conference of the Parties from 2008 recommended a precautionary approach to GE trees.

GE tree proponents claim that regulatory processes can ensure safety, and complain that they are overly burdensome.  But experience with common GE crops demonstrates that standard regulatory reviews, as exemplified by the escape and invasion of GE creeping bentgrass, do not preclude serious harms.

In the case of the GE American chestnut, uncontained spread is in fact intentional.  

Hence there will be no way to prevent contamination of remaining pure American chestnuts, or hybrid chestnut orchards. Nor will it be possible to prevent the spread of GE chestnuts across territorial boundaries.    

The GE American chestnut is meant to launch us down the slippery slope of tree biotechnology.  

Underlying drivers

In the wings, and waiting to follow in that newly forged path are a host of other GE forest tree species, engineered for commercial industrial purposes.

Meanwhile, natural forests are rapidly declining, even as climate science dictates that protecting and restoring forests is a crucial part of regaining carbon balance.  

Yet logging, even of the precious remaining old growth forests, continues largely unabated, often subsidized with public funding. Replacing real forests with tree plantations, and then referring to them as “planted forests”, conceals the fact that tree plantations are more akin to corn fields than forests.  

They often displace natural forests and rural communities, are monocultures lacking biodiversity, doused with herbicides and agrichemicals, rapidly drain fresh water sources, and are designated for fast growth and short rotation mechanical harvesting. 

Debates about forest health, and the potential for biotechnology to provide solutions are irrelevant when underlying drivers of forest demise are not addressed. 

If we are seriously concerned about protecting forest health, then reigning in those underlying drivers of forest destruction is the real solution – not genetically engineering trees or replacing diverse natural forests with industrial plantations.      

These Authors 

Rachel Smolker is codirector of Biofuelwatch where she works to raise awareness of the impacts of large scale bioenergy, the bioeconomy and biotechnology.  Her work has spanned from local grassroots organizing to participation in the United Nations conventions on climate and biodiversity. She is on the steering committee of the Campaign to Stop GE Trees, and is a board member of the Global Forest Coalition.

Anne Petermann is the co-Founder and Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project and the co-founder and Coordinator of the international Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees. She has presented concerns about GE trees at UN climate, biodiversity and forest conferences, and to community and grassroots groups on six continents.

This article from today’s the ECOLOGIST – The Journal for the Post-Industrial Age – appeared yesterday in Earth Island Journal with the headline, GE American Chestnut – Restoration of a Beloved Species or Trojan Horse for Tree Biotechnology? and cross-posted in Independent Science News.

________________________

Langelle Photography is a component of Global Justice Ecology Project’s Global Justice Media Program

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Clearcut area of forest by Dominion Energy for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. This cut is near Wintergreen Resort, a four-season mountain resort on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, located in Nelson County, Virginia.                                                                                       photo: Orin Langelle

 Atlantic Coast Pipeline Already Destroying Forests

Ernie Reed, from the Nelson County District Board of Supervisors, gave Dr. Mary Finley-Brook and me a tour of some of the sites where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would go through Nelson County. Dr. Mary Finley-Brook serves on the Virginia Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice and is a professor of geography and the environment at the University of Richmond.

This photo was taken close to where a drill would bore beneath the Appalachian Mountain National Scenic Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway through the mountain gap between Three Ridges Wilderness (George Washington National Forest) and Devil’s Knob (at Wintergreen Resort). The mountain consists of greenstone and granite.  The bore would be over 4,200 feet long and 46 inches in diameter for a 42” pipeline that would contain fracked natural gas at a pressure of 1440 pounds per square inch.

Dr. Finley-Brook (left) and Ernie Reed (right) by a solar powered USGS Water Quality monitoring Station in Nelson County, VA. Photo: Orin Langelle

The drill is estimated to require almost 30 million gallons of potable water. The polluted water and residue from the drilling then must be contained, transferred to tanker trucks and trucked to a waste disposal site, yet to be determined. Nelson County has declined an offer from Dominion to purchase this water and a source for it is yet to be determined

Although the ACP has not yet received final approval, Dominion Energy is clearing some corridors of forest where they have purchased easements through the threat of eminent domain. This clearcutting is considered a “preconstruction activity” by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

If constructed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be 604 miles long and cross West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. Approximately 300 miles of the pipeline would run through forested land.

Below:

This video footage is from JR Chopper and other credits are listed at the end of this short clip. While I did not take photos for this clip, I am working on a documentary photo essay of the ACP and I did help in production of this clip.

The struggle against the pipeline has called into question many different practices by Dominion Energy regarding environmental, racial and class injustices. – Orin Langelle

 

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Note: I am honored that Alexis Lathem chose one of my photographs for the cover of her new book, Alphabet of Bones. Alexis and I have been friends for almost a quarter of a century and have worked on many campaigns together. And we both have much more to share as time goes by…

If you are near Burlington, Vermont on September 26th, I hope you will attend Alexis’ book launch party (details below).

Alphabet of Bones

Special Book Launch   26 September 2015 @ 4:30 p.m.
Arts Riot
400 Pine Street
Burlington, VT 05401
The readings will be accompanied by a fine art slideshow and a live jazz music performance.

Alphabet of Bones

by Alexis Lathem

Releases September 2015

Alphabet of Bones is a collection of poems born out of the poet’s long engagement with the natural world—as gardener, shepherd, activist, and as a mortal human being whose bones will one day return to dust. Set in the context of unprecedented violence against nature—as living cultures are reduced to archeology—these poems take the long view, insisting on a deep ecological memory, and an awareness that our stories will be told through the landscapes we leave behind. From the pastoral landscape to the arctic tundra, these poems trace the discovery of the luminous in the shadows of loss. “We must leave a message,” the poet asks. “But in what language will we speak?”

 

Praise for Alphabet of Bones

“Alexis Lathem’s poems are steeped in patient observations and a deep comprehension of the grace and tragedy of human life, of the mysteries of the natural world, and our fragile place within it. Perhaps most of all these poems are shaped by an understanding of the power of language — its music as much as its meaning. Alphabet of Bones is a grave, beautiful accomplishment.”
—Jane Brox, author of Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, named one of the top ten nonfiction books of 2010 by Time magazine; Five Thousand Days Like This One, a 1999 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction; and Here and Nowhere Else, winner of the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award.

 

Instructions for a Ghost Writer

Let it rain so long that the only vowel the water knows is O.
Keep still. Wait for the mist to lift.

If you’ve listened to the moths beat their wings against their moons—
then you will be prepared.

You will hear things—animals, footsteps, wind—
and will doubt yourself. This is to be expected.
Your ghost will come.

She will tap softly in your ear and hum.
She has a fondness for words like pellucid and papyri.  
She will want you to put them in.

Follow these instructions and she will come again.
Stay close to death. Stop for the dying squirrel in the road,
put its heartbeat in your poem.
Grow your parsley and calendula from seed.

She might fall asleep in the corner of your room, stumble out at dawn.
Overtake you walking on the Brooklyn Bridge. Be tender,
she is made of the faded scent of pine. Close the door quietly.
Erase.

 

About the Poet

1436552732483Alexis Lathem is an environmental journalist and writing teacher. Recipient of the Chelsea Award for Poetry, a Vermont Arts Council grant, and a Bread Loaf scholarship, her poems and essays have appeared in many journals. In her reporting on the struggles of indigenous peoples to defend their lands from development, she has paddled and trekked through taiga and rainforest. She lives on a small farm in the Winooski River Valley.

 

 To purchase Alphabet of Bones, please contact:

Wind Ridge Books of Vermont
233 Falls Rd., PO Box 595, Shelburne, VT 05482
(802) 922-7641  [email protected]

 

 

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“All signs show that Paraguay, both its territory and its population, are under attack by conquerors, but conquerors of a new sort. These new ‘conquistadors’ are racing to seize all available arable land and, in the process, are destroying peoples’ cultures and the country’s biodiversity — just as they are in many other parts of the planet, even in those areas that fall within the jurisdiction of ‘democratic’ and ‘developed’ countries. Every single foot of land is in their crosshairs. Powerful elites do not recognize rural populations as having any right to land at all.” – Dr. Miguel Lovera

Photo Essay by Orin Langelle. Analysis at the end of the essay by Dr. Miguel Lovera from the case study: The Environmental and Social Impacts of Unsustainable Livestock Farming and Soybean Production in Paraguay. Dr. Lovera is the ex-president of SENAVE, the National Plant and Protection Agency during the government of Fernando Lugo.

Woman holding photo of baby whose condition is blamed on Monsanto during a rally in Asunción, Paraguay, 3 December 2014.  PhotoLangelle.org

Woman holding photo of a baby whose condition is blamed on Monsanto and agrotoxics during a rally in Asunción, Paraguay, 3 December 2014. PhotoLangelle.org

I recently returned from Paraguay and observed corporate dreams coming true at the expense of the people and biodiversity…

Stay tuned.

– Orin Langelle, 16 December 2014

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