News Release

Genetically Engineered American Chestnut Trees

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The American Chestnut Foundation recently announced that it would drop their “years-long signature effort to develop a genetically engineered American chestnut tree” known as “Darling 58” (D58). Environmental activists say the decision has “far-reaching implications for the future of [genetically modified organisms] and raises serious concerns about the regulatory process surrounding their release.”

ANNE PETERMANN; anne@globaljusticeecology.org
    Petermann is the executive director of Global Justice Ecology Project and the international coordinator of the Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees. She has been involved in efforts for forest protection and defense of the rights of Indigenous peoples since 1989.

Along with the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) has petitioned the USDA to deregulate D58, which would give permission for the organizations to release the trees into wild forests––with the intention of contaminating wild American chestnuts with genetically engineered pollen to spread a gene for blight tolerance. 

Petermann told the Institute for Public Accuracy: Until this fall, “everything we heard from SUNY-ESF and TACF made it seem like [the development of D58] was going full steam ahead, and that there was little we could do” to prevent the tree’s deregulation. But in September, “TACF and SUNY-ESF [the institutions researching and developing D58 for distribution into the environment] held a joint presentation called the Chestnut Chat, which they advertised as an update to the deregulation of D58. 

“The presentation was quite surprising. It showed all sorts of problems with D58: it was growing 20 percent slower than its non-GMO counterparts; there was unexplained mortality in the trees; they weren’t resistant to the blight” that they were specifically engineered to be resistant to. (That blight has contributed to the decimation of the American chestnut population since the early 20th century.) “The tests that they had done on juvenile trees did not determine D58’s blight resistance as the trees got older.” 

The organizations had “rushed to the government to get deregulation. It would have been a total disaster.” If the D58 trees had been released into the wild, they “would have been fertile and would have spread a defective genetic trait to wild American chestnut trees. [Other organizations] breed wild American chestnuts with each other to restore the wild American chestnut population. If D58 had crossed with those wild trees, it would have caused future problems for the restoration effort of the American chestnut.”

Further, when researchers did a “deeper dive into the D58’s genome, they found that… somehow, the scientific team at SUNY-ESF had given [TACF] the wrong pollen and trees.” The D58 they had been experimenting with was not truly a D58 tree. Independent researchers have confirmed this “significant identity error in the propagation materials.” Some note that because this error occurred so early on, researchers would need to “start from scratch with the D58, which would put them back about seven years.”

TACF and SUNY-ESF are not changing course. “They want to continue asking for deregulation by the USDA.”

“The genetic engineering process is not precise or predictable,” Petermann added. “Trees are not computers. You aren’t going to know the long-term problems until much later. This is a perfect example. [These organizations] have been saying all over national media for years that [D58] was going to work great. In fact, it was a near disaster that they didn’t notice until it was almost too late.”