On his land in western Maine, naturalist Bernd Heinrich is surrounded by American chestnut trees and seedlings. More than 1,300 of them grow on his land. Only four of these trees were planted by him, the rest with the help of blue jays and squirrels.
Heinrich, a professor emeritus from the University of Vermont, recently published a new article in Northeastern Naturalist (2022, Vol. 29 Issue 3, p321-334), that describes “the reproduction, dispersal, and regeneration of a wild population of Castanea dentata (American chestnut), established from four seed bearing trees planted in a western Maine forest in 1982.” The article documents two surveys in 2019 and 2020 that mapped and measured 1348 offspring originating from those four trees.
According to the research, the trees show no obvious signs of the introduced blight that, along with unsustainable logging, devastated populations of American chestnut trees across eastern North America in the early 1900s.
This study is a holiday gift to the forests as it provides clear evidence of a natural revival of the nostalgic American chestnut tree. The idea that a blight resistant American chestnut could emerge naturally, however, is not a new one and has been the goal of the American Chestnut Cooperator’s Foundation (ACCF) for decades. The ACCF, founded in 1985, has a program to cultivate a naturally blight resistant wild American chestnut through a natural breeding program. Their work continues to this day and includes a specific mission to ensure their wild trees are not contaminated with the genetically engineered variety that is now undergoing a USDA public comment period. [See full statement from ACCF below.]
“The ACCF has been having great success with their work to bring back a naturally blight resistant American chestnut tree – one that is 100% American chestnut, not a hybrid and certainly not genetically engineered,” said Lois Breault-Melican. Melican is a member of the ACCF and a former Board member of the American Chestnut Foundation, from which she and her husband resigned when the group started supporting and promoting the development of American chestnuts that had been genetically engineered for blight resistance. “Dedicated volunteers in the U.S. and Canada have made huge progress in supporting a future for true, wild American chestnuts.”
There is currently a formal petition in front of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) requesting permission to freely release genetically engineered American chestnut trees into wild forests. This proposal is of great concern to those working to restore the non-GE wild American chestnut tree who worry that it will threaten the comeback of those wild trees.
“Why would anyone want to risk the revival of the native wild American chestnut by spreading genetically engineered chestnut trees through our forests?” asked Melican.
Dr. Donald Davis, author of the new book The American Chestnut an Environmental History and founding member of the Georgia chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, has challenged the notion put forward by GE chestnut proponents that the American Chestnut is “functionally extinct,” noting that there are at least 400 million American Chestnuts in the wild. In a recent opinion piece in The Hill, Dr. Davis, a former Fulbright Fellow and part time researcher at Harvard Forest, warned of the dangers of releasing a GE variety. He has called the proposal to release GE American chestnuts into wild forests a “dangerous, irreversible experiment.”
Yet this is exactly the proposal being evaluated by the USDA. In 2020 researchers from the SUNY school of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) submitted a request to the USDA to deregulate “Darling 58” GE American chestnuts for unmonitored, widespread release in US forests. On November 10th, 2022, the USDA called for a very short 45 day public comment period on its draft decision to approve this request, ending December 27th. Cramming the comment period into the holiday season undermines the ability of people to participate in the decision-making around the unprecedented plan to deregulate genetically engineered (GE) trees for spreading into the wild.
“This is really a struggle for the soul of the American chestnut. If approved, this would be the first time in the history of the world that a genetically engineered plant was deliberately released into the wild with the express intent of spreading and contaminating a native species. Why release it and jeopardize the natural revival of the wild American chestnut? Do we want a forest of wild trees or genetically engineered trees?” added Anne Petermann of Global Justice Ecology Project. “People need to let the USDA know what they think of this.”
Organizations representing tens of millions in the US and globally have endorsed the demand to the USDA to reject the D58 GE American chestnut tree. World Rainforest Movement, Greenpeace USA, Friends of the Earth US, the Center for Food Safety, Climate Justice Alliance, Food and Water Watch, Indigenous Environmental Network, Environmental Paper Network, Dogwood Alliance, Global Forest Coalition, the Organic Consumers’ Association, and Rural Coalition are among the fifty-plus groups that have joined with the Campaign to STOP GE Trees to take an official stand against the proposal. They are also supported by groups in Canada, such as the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, who are concerned about the GE tree spreading North.
“This is a nutty proposal, which seeks to use an ecological tragedy to rationalize the use of genetic engineering in forestry,” said Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch. “It has nothing to do with forest health and everything to do with paving the way for use of genetically engineered trees in commercial forestry plantations. It is a Trojan Horse made of GE chestnut wood.”
USDA website for submitting comments on their draft Environmental Impact Statement recommending approval of the unmonitored and unregulated release of genetically engineered chestnut trees into wild forests: DEADLINE December 27 https://www.regulations.gov/commenton/APHIS-2020-0030-8291
Editorial featured in The Hill by Dr. Donald Davis, Chestnut expert and author 11/27/22
Pre-Recorded audio interviews with members of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees
Statement from the American Chestnut Cooperator’s Foundation, December 2022:
The American Chestnut Cooperator’s Foundation began in 1985 in response to other organizations utilizing other methods, as an effort to restore the pure American chestnut and its natural genetics to its former prominence in our eastern forests. ACCF founders actually began work in the 60s and 70s in cooperation with each other and on their own to find and graft original blight survivors so they could be utilized in breeding. They believed that intercrossing American Chestnuts that survived the original blight pandemic would yield offspring better able to survive and resist the blight fungus.
The ACCF breeding program is stand alone and our goal is restoration. We strive for pure American chestnut trees with durable blight resistance AND structural properties characteristic of the native tree that once dominated our forests. ACCF has trees in our breeding program that have reproduced and shown durable blight resistance for many years. We have made great progress via natural means and are also addressing other threats to this fantastic tree.
The woods are full of American chestnut sprouts and trees, some reproducing. We don’t believe DNA preservation and genetic rescue are necessary. We do believe the genetic makeup can be forever tainted by the introduction of foreign genes. Once the GMO Pandora’s box is opened, it is unlikely that any damage can be undone. There are many unknowns about characteristics, current and future, of a Genetically Engineered forest chestnut to replace our American chestnuts. American Chestnuts historically could live several hundreds of years. Dispersion of GMO American type chestnuts possessing improved blight resistance will very likely become a bigger concern if, in the GMO process, there is loss of essential physical characteristics and alteration in chemical composition that can negatively impact tree tolerance of other environmental stresses. Will the characteristics that make the American chestnut such a valuable timber tree be lost in the GMO forest replacement? It may take decades to find out. GMO proponents are searching for robust mature chestnuts to make their OXO crosses. ACCF germplasm, almost 50 years in the making, is not for use in other methods to help them succeed. Those methods “should” also stand alone.