For Immediate Release

Researchers’ Plan To Release Genetically Engineered American Chestnut Trees in Forests Will Set Dangerous Precedents If Approved

USDA to seek public comment on proposal to release genetically engineered trees in forests.

NEW YORK - Researchers are working with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to finalize a petition requesting the unprecedented approval of a genetically engineered (GE or genetically modified) tree designed to be planted in our forests and spread freely in the wild. Once the internal petition process is complete, the USDA will release it for public comment. This is expected to occur at any time.

Researchers at the SUNY School of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) are seeking USDA and EPA approval for “Darling 58,” a GE transgenic American Chestnut tree which they claim is tolerant to the blight helped drive American chestnut trees to near extinction. They are working with The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) with the aim to “restore” the GE tree to forests.

The Campaign to STOP GE Trees, however, has uncovered financial, technical and other support for the GE American chestnut by corporations including Monsanto, ArborGen, Weyerhaeuser and others, who view the chestnut as a “test case” to overcome widespread public opposition to GE trees and open the door to approval of other economically valuable GE trees, like poplar and pine designed for industrial plantations.

Not only would this tree be the first-ever GE forest tree approved for unrestricted planting in North America, it would also be the first genetically modified organism (GMO) designed to spread into ecosystems.

There are no long-term risk assessments of the impact of these GE trees on forests or other ecosystems, and scientists note it is not possible to conduct such assessments. Meanwhile, release of fertile GE American chestnut trees into forests would be irreversible. The Precautionary Principle mandates that before such an irreversible action is taken, it must be proven safe.  There is no evidence that the GE American chestnut tree is safe in forest ecosystems over time. 

American chestnut trees were historically a dominant species in eastern forests, yet a fully mature GE American chestnut has never been observed. If the tree proliferates and its blight tolerance trait eventually fails, the impacts on forest ecosystems are unknown. The use of genetic engineering could also undermine other established non-GMO American chestnut restoration efforts.

Moreover, the unproven nature of this engineered trait in a wild setting makes it unlikely that the GE American chestnut tree will actually succeed in being effectively blight resistant over time when subjected to environmental stresses. Meanwhile, Phytophthora cinnamomi, a seperate pathogen lethal to American chestnut trees, is also spreading through our forests.

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The unprecedented proposal by SUNY ESF and TACF to introduce GE trees into eastern forests is opposed by a wide coalition of groups and individuals. Already there are over 111,000 signatures calling on the USDA to reject the request to release GE American chestnut trees into wild forests. Organizations standing with the Campaign include Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace US, Dogwood Alliance, Global Forest Coalition, Center for Food Safety and others.

Indigenous peoples have not consented to the release of this GE tree which could spread across their territories and ancestral lands. Elders and wisdom keepers warn this is another attempt to control and commodify the living world. Each step taken in this direction has the potential to further threaten biodiversity already weakened by unchecked natural resource exploitation.

Spread of the GE American chestnut tree onto Indigenous lands without permission violates the UN’s Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) mandate.

The Campaign to STOP GE Trees has spent two decades monitoring attempts by industry to gain approval of GE trees. The Campaign has worked at all levels to prevent the release of unproven and experimental GE trees into the environment: from the European Parliament to the United Nations, which issued a warning to countries of the risks of GE trees at its 2008 Convention on Biological Diversity. Additionally the Forest Stewardship Council and other global certifying bodies will not certify GE trees or their products as “sustainable.”

In summary, the Campaign to STOP GE Trees opposes the GE American chestnut due to:

  • National Academies of Science-identified USDA and EPA regulatory inadequacies,
  • a lack of science proving long-term safety in a forest ecosystem.
  • concerns of Indigenous Peoples whose lands fall in the trees’ proposed range,
  • the precedent it would set to open the door to other commercial GE trees.

More information can be found in an in-depth white paper detailing the science and risks associated with the GE American chestnut tree. See also a Campaign editorial featured in The Hill outlining these concerns, written following presentations by Campaign to STOP GE Trees representatives to the National Academies of Science.

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