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In Reconsidering ‘Normalcy’ Genetically Engineered Trees Do Not Belong

The global pandemic of Covid-19 has challenged the notion of business as usual and exposed a systemic crisis rooted in capitalism and the neoliberal economic model. The pandemic has proliferated in unpredictable numbers, killing thousands in a flash and spreading unhesitatingly beyond borders and boundaries. Millions of people are unemployed and in need of food, medicine and other basic necessities as a result of the collapse of an economic system already stacked against them. On all fronts we are in a physical, mental and spiritual crisis.

Covid-19 was the tipping point that launched us into this crisis, but we have been on this trajectory for a long time. Despite decades of dire warnings on the mounting impacts of climate change, environmental destruction and historic economic inequality, we desperately cling to the models of growth that are leading us down a road of demise. Still, we are pushing for a return to “normalcy,” which Arundhati Roy refers to as the ‘doomsday machine.’ According to Roy, ‘Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.’

It is this ‘doomsday machine’ that led to the destruction of wild ecosystems from deforestation, logging and industrial farming. This ecocidal model will, according to numerous scientists and NGOs like GRAIN, result in the emergence and spread of ever more new viruses. Despite this, business as usual continues on for researchers who have developed a genetically engineered (GE) American chestnut tree designed for release into natural habitats. They are seeking government approval to release this unprecedented and irreversible experiment into our forests with no idea what the implications will be, ensuring the ‘machine’ keeps running.

In the spirit of science fiction and experimentation, researcher William Powell and his team at State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) in Syracuse have engineered blight resistance into the American chestnut using an Oxalate Oxidase enzyme (OxO) gene, derived from wheat. There are no long-term risk assessments of these laboratory experiments, and such assessments are not possible with trees that live hundreds of years. In fact, the oldest of these experimental trees is less than two decades. This can hardly be used to claim blight tolerance and assess the risks of these trees, their pollen or seeds to forests, wildlife or human health over the full life-span of the tree.

If approved, this would be the first GMO plant ever to be released into the wild with the intention of contaminating wild relatives. This unprecedented release would be an experiment with our forests, one that is irreversible with unpredictable impacts.

Researchers seek approval to maintain the illusion of ‘normality.’

Deregulation of their GE American chestnut would help the timber and paper industries advance normalcy by setting a precedent that would unleash the development of yet more GE trees for industrial plantations. This is where the vast majority of research into GE trees has been directed.

The GE chestnut is also used to promote ‘normalcy’ by manipulating people’s emotions using nostalgia for the forests of the past, and the false promise of forest health restoration. But our forests are already under extreme duress from deforestation, insects, pathogens and climate change. Rather than address these critical problems, genetically engineered trees add another unpredictable threat.

Nature is a complex web of life that has evolved over billions of years. The introduction into forests of a new GE tree, which has been backed by Monsanto, ArborGen, Duke Energy and other corporate interests, threatens the intricate functioning of forest ecosystems. The National Academy of Sciences warns that U.S. regulatory agencies do not have the capacity to assess the impacts of genetically engineered trees. Yet the USDA recently revised its biotechnology regulations to make future GMO approvals easier.

For too long our destruction of natural habitats has gone unchecked. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light the crises associated with ‘normality’ and given us an opportunity to reimagine our world. It is an opportunity to recreate our relationship with nature, defend our environment and protect wild forests.

The GE tree experiment is risky, unproven and irreversible and it must be rejected. For more information visit https://stopgetrees.org #stopgetrees #keepforestswild