Genetically Engineered Tree Campaign Gains Strength: GE Tree Scientists Worried

In the midst of the holiday season, while thoughts turn to roasting chestnuts, a handful of scientists are working to genetically engineer the iconic American chestnut tree, which they hope to release throughout the Appalachians and the Eastern US. Indigenous Peoples, scientists and others are raising alarms about the risks of these trees, cautioning about their potentially dangerous impacts on forests, wildlife and human health. Due to these unassessed risks, they warn, GE chestnuts, or any GE trees, should never be approved for planting.

But GE tree developers 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, a leading developer of the GE chestnut, stresses that it is “essential to reach out to the public,” adding, “we need their help to get the chestnut through the regulatory process. There is a significant anti-GMO movement that may try to stop the deregulation (legalization) 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,” replied BJ McManama of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “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 legalized, 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.”

And if it’s widespread public opposition he is worried about, Powell has good reason to be concerned.  Earlier this month, MeadWestvaco, a major investor and co-founder of GE tree giant ArborGen dropped the charges against Ruddy Turnstone and me rather than face a jury trial.  We were arrested outside of the World Headquarters of ArborGen in September during a protest designed to call attention to the massive and growing public opposition to GE trees.  ArborGen’s facilities are on MeadWestvaco land.

“In 2015 alone, more than a quarter of a million people signed on to reject genetically engineered trees,” stated Ruddy Turnstone, GE Tree Campaigner for Global Justice Ecology Project and Steering Committee member of the international Campaign to STOP 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.”

After the action, ArborGen made their first public statement about their work on GE loblolly pines and other GE trees in a local paper.  In it, they argued that they were not working on GE loblolly pines and had “no plans” right now to offer GE products.

The US government, however, lists two active ArborGen GE loblolly pine field trials in South Carolina and Georgia.  Additionally, one of ArborGen’s three major investors, New Zealand-based Rubicon,emphasizes that ArborGen is very much involved in the development of genetically engineered (GE) trees:

“ArborGen’s product development pipeline includes … transgenic seedling products, which are seedling products with specific genes introduced to enhance targeted traits.” [i.e. genetically engineered] (from the Rubicon website)

ArborGen is also developing freeze-tolerant GE eucalyptus trees, which are being trialed across the Gulf Coast states. On November 18th, the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that the US Fish and Wildlife Service was evaluating the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on ArborGen’s GE eucalyptus trees. In 2011 ArborGen submitted a petition to the USDA requesting permission to commercially sell this GE eucalyptus, prompting the EIS, which has yet to be released to the public.

In a statement to shareholders, Rubicon CEO Luke Moriarty said ArborGen plans to sell half a billion of these GE trees every year for plantations from South Carolina to Texas. ArborGen keeps the locations of their GE trees secret and refuses to provide information about them to the public.  

The protests that occurred at ArborGen in September opposing GE trees were based on ArborGen’s own words and actions, but also on scientific research detailing the dangers of GE trees.  GE eucalyptus trees, for example, are not only likely to be invasive, they are explosively flammable–leading Jim Hightower to call them “living firecrackers.”  They have also been likened to “flammable kudzu.”  They are not native to this hemisphere and wildlife cannot use them.  In Brazil eucalyptus plantations are called “Green Deserts” because nothing can live in them.

The public will soon have the opportunity to get involved.  Right now the US biotechnology regulatory process is being reviewed and there will, at some point, be a public comment period.  People can get plugged in by clicking here

Dr. Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch explains, “The government appears to be trying to streamline the approval process for the large number of new GE plants, trees and microbes that are coming up for evaluation. Yes, it’s true the current regulatory process is basically obsolete, but any new process should be more rigorous, not less. The GE American chestnut tree 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–like ArborGen’s loblolly pines and eucalyptus. If the regulatory process was really science-based and concerned about safety, these trees would not be approved. In fact, there would be a permanent halt on any GE tree deregulation,” Smolker said.

GE tree opponents promise to continue to increase the heat in 2016.

Anne Petermann is the Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project and the Coordinator of the international Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees.  For more, go to nogetrees and stopgetrees.