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GE chestnuts

Scientists plan to release genetically engineered chestnut trees in the US
Chestnuts Picture from MyGreenPod Sustainable News

There’s a good chance you’ll have enjoyed a roasted chestnut or two over the Christmas holiday – and as you did, a handful of scientists were working out how to genetically engineer the iconic American chestnut tree. If successful, the plan is to release the GE trees throughout the Appalachians and the Eastern US.

Unknown risks

Indigenous Peoples, scientists and others are raising alarms about the risks these GE trees would pose, cautioning about their dangerous impacts to forests, wildlife and human health.

Due to unassessed risks, they warn that GE chestnuts – or any GE trees – should never be approved for planting.

‘It’s true the current regulatory process is basically obsolete, but any new process should be more rigorous, not less. The GE American chestnut is a perfect example of this. If this tree were greenlighted, the impacts to forests, biodiversity and people would be nearly impossible to predict and potentially devastating.

‘It would also open the door to other dangerous GE trees. If the regulatory process was really science-based and concerned about safety, Powell’s GE chestnuts would never be approved. In fact, there would be a permanent halt on any GE tree deregulation.’

Dr Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch

The PR machine

But GE tree scientists appear less worried about risks than about public relations. In his most recent annual report, Dr William Powell of SUNY’s School of Environmental Science and Forestry stressed that it’s ‘essential to reach out to the public’.

He added, ‘We need [public] help to get the chestnut through the regulatory process. There is a significant anti-GMO movement that may try to stop the deregulation (legalisation) of the [chestnut]. Therefore we need strong public support to counter any roadblock they may try to erect.’

‘First of all, the GE tree regulatory process is not supposed to be a popularity contest.

‘Opposition to GE trees is growing because people are concerned with defending and protecting the biodiversity of our already stressed forest ecosystems. If GE American chestnuts are legalised, the ripple effects will be far reaching and potentially catastrophic. Even with years of research, all the variables cannot be identified and/or tested, which is precisely the reason to reject all GE trees once and for all.’

BJ McManama, Indigenous Environmental Network

Public opposition

And if it’s widespread public opposition he is worried about, Powell has good reason to be concerned.

In 2015 alone, more than a quarter of a million people signed on to reject genetically engineered trees.

‘Just this year, protests took place on six continents, and in September, there was an action at the world headquarters of GE tree leader ArborGen where two of us were arrested. Earlier this month, in the face of a possible jury trial, they dropped our charges.’

Anne Petermann, executive director of Global Justice Ecology Project

In 2013 the largest ever protests against GE trees took place in Asheville, NC at the Tree Biotechnology 2013 conference. Hundreds of concerned citizens rallied there against GE trees, and several were arrested for disrupting the conference.

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