By: Joan Brunwasser

My guest today is Anne Petermann, Executive Director of the Global Justice Ecology Project. Welcome to OpEdNews, Anne.

JB: You're up in arms against the humble chestnut tree. You recently wrote This Holiday Season say NO to GMO Chestnuts , a strong OpEd piece against it. I admit that I don't know much about this subject and many of our readers are probably in the same boat. Would you educate us on the subject, please?

AP: Let me be clear first that my background is in forest protection. I have been working to protect the forests of the Northeast US and the world for the last 25 years. I started working on the threats posed by GE trees in 1999 because I worried about their impact on forests. The further I dug, the more concerned I became. So when we talk about the American chestnut tree, we need to understand that this tree was once a key part of the forest ecosystem in the Eastern US. There is an understandably strong desire to return it to that ecosystem. However, I do not agree with replacing wild American chestnut trees with genetically engineered facsimiles.

The reasons for concern about the GE chestnut are many, but one of the main problems is that the GE chestnut has been engineered with foreign DNA from wheat, a process which damages the genome and leads to numerous mutations. This means the engineered tree will likely have unanticipated and unpredictable consequences when released into a forest ecosystem. As we've seen time and again with GMO crops, these unanticipated consequences can be very damaging to biodiversity and wildlife, not to mention people. Just take a look at the iconic Monarch butterfly–it's population is crashing due to the chemicals applied in abundance to herbicide resistant GMO crops. These herbicides are killing off the main food of the butterflies.

JB: Here in the U.S., we used to have lots of chestnut trees – millions, even billions of them. It's hard to imagine that introducing them back into our environment would be so iffy. Can you give us an idea of what could possibly happen and the actual likelihood of it happening?

AP: The American chestnut still exists throughout the forests of the Eastern US. Many of the trees that were killed off by the blight re-sprouted from the stumps and quite a few of these have survived to the point where they are producing chestnuts that are being harvested by people and feeding wildlife. There is also active work being undertaken to use a weakened strain of the virus on long-lived wild American chestnuts as a way to help evolution along in the creation of real resistant wild American chestnuts–not engineered facsimiles.

But the research that is being undertaken to genetically engineer a new chestnut tree–one that has never existed before in nature–is fraught with potential pitfalls. As I mentioned, there are likely to be unanticipated and unpredictable consequences that could be quite dangerous. The idea is to release these GE chestnuts directly into wild forests in a completely fertile state to contaminate as many of the wild American chestnuts as possible, in order to spread the engineered trait far and wide. This means two things. It means that GE chestnuts are incompatible with wild American chestnuts because the wild chestnuts will eventually be contaminated if the GE chestnuts are released. It also means if, say, 10 years or 20 years down the road there is an unanticipated change in the genome of the GE chestnuts–for example the blight resistance gene is "silenced" (stops working–a common problem in genetic engineering), then suddenly we have a whole new wave of trees susceptible to the blight. People who are concerned about the forests, or who want to see the American chestnut restored, should be quite concerned about this.


JB: You raise a good point, Anne. There are plenty of people who are concerned about our forests. But concern and understanding of the dangers of this GE intrusion are two different things. How do we bridge that gap? And aren't the corporations behind this clever to cloak it in other, positive terms?

AP: Yes, that corporate involvement is a key piece of the puzzle. Some of the sponsors and funders of the research into the GE chestnut do not have concern for the forests at the top of their list. These include both Monsanto (never a good sign) and ArborGen–a major GE tree company jointly owned by three timber multinationals including International Paper and MeadWestvaco. ArborGen currently has a request pending with the USDA to commercially sell an estimated half a billion GE eucalyptus seedlings for vast plantations throughout the Southern US, from South Carolina to Texas–and potentially also in the Pacific Northwest.

These GE eucalyptus plantations will do incalculable damage to the forests of these regions. Not only will forests be logged out to be replaced with these fast-growing plantations, two of the eucalyptus trees used to create this GE eucalyptusare already documented as invasive.

JB: What does that mean exactly?

AP: Eucalyptus trees are native only to Australia. But in the 1850s for example, they were introduced into California. Now they have spread throughout vast regions of the state. They are also explosively flammable, as we saw in the Oakland wildfires of 1991 which were fueled by invasive eucalyptus trees.

Eucalyptus are also extremely greedy for water and existing non-GE eucalyptus plantations have dried up ground water in many regions, causing tremendous hardships on local communities. They also kill off ground vegetation with a toxin that they release from their leaves, and because they are non-native, wildlife cannot use them for food or habitat. Freeze-tolerant GE eucalyptus plantations are an ecological catastrophe waiting to happen. One of their nicknames is "flammable kudzu."

But Monsanto is even worse. We all know the havoc that Monsanto has wreaked around the globe. So if these are two of the backers of the GE chestnut, then clearly, for them, altruism is not the main point of these trees–it is public relations. They want to convince the public that GE trees can have beneficial applications to open the door to destructive GE trees like ArborGen's GE eucalyptus.


JB: What are the supposed beneficial applications that Monsanto and their cohorts are hiding behind? Prepare us so we can defend ourselves against their misleading sales pitch.


AP: The public relations story of the American chestnut is that genetic engineering is being used to restore this once great tree to its former range–much of the eastern US. It was once the dominant tree in eastern forests. They grew to be huge trees–16 feet in diameter and 250 years old. Then, a fungus introduced from Asia wiped out most of the trees in the first half of the last century. So the argument is that GE will put bring this tree back to its former glory.

However, as I pointed out, there are non-GE methods being used to bring back the chestnut. And because American chestnuts stump sprout, there are still quite a few wild chestnuts in the forests, some of which get fairly large and old enough to produce chestnuts. But, as I said, the GE method and the non-GE methods are incompatible, as the release of GE chestnuts into wild forests, which is the plan, will eventually result in the contamination of wild chestnuts with the engineered DNA.

So why are Monsanto and ArborGen involved? They are promoting the idea that GE trees can be used for conservation, as a way to open the door to GE eucalyptus, poplar and pine, which are also extremely dangerous and to which the public is staunchly opposed.

JB: Maybe this is a bit disingenuous, but why would Monsanto and ArborGen want to put the wild American chestnut trees at risk? Is this simply a case of the age-old profit motive at work?

AP: Companies like Monsanto and ArborGen believe that genetic engineering a plant or animal "improves" it. And yes, I imagine they are thinking mainly of their bottom line when they say that. So, as with the GE chestnut scientists, they likely do not believe there is any risk to wild American chestnuts. Quite the opposite, they believe all of the American chestnuts should be GE.


JB: These companies are ostensibly science-driven; they spend big bucks on R & D. How can that be true, Anne? How do they stack their "facts" against the "real" truth about this? I just don't get it.

AP: These companies are not science-driven, they are profit-driven. They are responsible to their shareholders. But Monsanto is especially nefarious. They quash any science that does not agree with their desired outcomes. Independent researchers and graduate students looking into the health or environmental impacts of GMOs often find their funding disappear. As we saw with the recent GMO labeling campaigns in various US states, Monsanto et. al. outspent the pro-GMO labeling crew by vast amounts and yet still, in Oregon, only won by 51% to 49%. And the pro-GMO companies lost in Vermont, where labeling was passed and now the state is being sued by Monsanto via the Grocery Manufacturer's Association.

We have to remember that before Monsanto got into seeds, they were a chemical company. They invented PCBs and knew for decades that they were carcinogenic, but never bothered to tell anyone and countless people died from PCB exposure. Likewise DDT, dioxin, Agent Orange, and on and on. ArborGen does not fare any better. They are jointly owned by International Paper, a notoriously nasty company. And ArborGen's leadership and many of their scientists come directly from Monsanto.

JB: What a toxic loop! Based on what you say, Anne, the GE chestnut really does sound like a Trojan Horse. If they have so much money and can outspend us and pull the wool over our eyes, how can we stand up to them and counter their influence?

AP: Just because companies have lots of money, huge PR machines and know how to play dirty, that does not make them impenetrable. We have on our side decades of experience with the dangers of GMOs–with several damning new studies coming out in 2014. Scientists are pushing back in other ways too, countering the nonsense argumentthat there is some kind of scientific consensus that GMOs are safe by launching a website to the contrary. Hundreds of scientists are signed onto this anti-GMO effort.

And of course there is public opinion. The public has historically been staunchly opposed to GE trees. The UN Food and Agriculture did a report in 2006 where they interviewed GE trees researchers about their main concerns about GE trees. Public opinion was the most often cited concern. The second most cited concern was GE tree contamination threats. People are getting involved all the time in our work to stop GE trees. In October, there was a conference of Indigenous Peoples against GE trees. Additionally, GE trees have not been approved for commercial-scale planting anywhere in the world except for China. This means we can still stop these things before our forests are irreversibly contaminated by GE trees. Before it is too late. People can get involved by going to http://nogetrees.orgor

JB: Helpful and encouraging. Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

AP: Only that we need people to get involved. While the possible approval of the GE chestnut may be a few years away, the USDA is already considering a petition by ArborGen to sell billions of GE eucalyptus seedlings. People can help by signing our petition demanding this petition be rejected. That petition can be found here.


JB: Thanks so much for filling us in on this, Anne. It was a pleasure talking with you. I learned a lot.


AP:Thank you.

Originally Published: OpEdNews