APHIS Public Comment Period Open for Deregulating Transgenic American Chestnut

A birds-eye view of the American chestnut forest restoration site. (from Cornell Alliance For Science site).


And now for something completely different…

For the last 30 or so years, the Chestnut People (people who want to restore American Chestnut) have been engaged in such a horse race. There were backcrosses to Chinese chestnut, which is resistant to Chestnut Blight.  There were folks trying to breed apparently resistant American Chestnuts to each other.  Finally, there were folks trying genetic engineering. At some point, they all got together to form what The American Chestnut Foundation calls 3BUR  :Breeding, Biotechnology and Biocontrol United for Restoration.

So here we are.. there is a specific tree called Darling 58  which is in a public comment period to be deregulated by APHIS, so that it can be planted like any other tree.  The idea is then to cross the GE trees with local chestnuts to develop regionally adapted and diverse populations.  Meanwhile another horse has entered the field called CRISPR , who might ultimately beat them all. If the last 30 years have taught us anything, it is that intervention is required to restore the Chestnut and the transgenic horse is the only one likely to finish (not just win) the race.

There’s a lengthy and interesting NY Times Magazine article by Gabriel Potkin on the history and development here:.  I thought it might be interesting to look at the arguments against deregulation.

But Brenda Jo McManama, an organizer with a group called the Indigenous Environmental Network, points to a 2010 agreement in which Monsanto licensed two gene-modifying patents to the New York chapter of the chestnut foundation and its collaborating institutions. (Powell says that industry contributions, including from Monsanto, have amounted to less than 4 percent of his work’s total funding.) McManama suspects Monsanto (acquired by Bayer in 2018) surreptitiously seeks to patent future iterations of the tree by supporting what appears to be an altruistic project. “Monsanto is evil,” she says flatly.

Powell says the patents in the 2010 agreement have since expired, and by publishing the details of his tree in the scientific literature, he has ensured it can’t be patented. But he realizes that will not allay all concerns. “I know some people are going to say, You’re just a Monsanto shill,” he says. “What can you do? You can’t help that.”

About five years ago, leaders at the American Chestnut Foundation concluded that they couldn’t achieve their goals through crossbreeding alone and embraced Powell’s genetic-engineering program. That decision has caused some rifts. In March 2019, Lois Breault-Melican, the president of the Massachusetts-Rhode Island chapter of the foundation, resigned, citing arguments made by the Global Justice Ecology Project, an anti-genetic-engineering organization based in Buffalo; her husband, Denis Melican, also left the board. The couple is particularly concerned that Powell’s chestnut could prove to be a “Trojan horse” that clears the way for other commercially grown trees supercharged by genetic engineering, Denis told me.

Susan Offutt, an agricultural economist who served as chair of a National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine committee that produced a 2018 study of biotechnology in forests, noted that the government’s regulatory process focuses on narrow questions of biological risk and almost never accounts for broader societal concerns like those raised by anti-G.M.O. activists. “What about the intrinsic value of the forest?” she asks, as an example of a question the process does not address. “Do forests have their own merit? Do we have a moral obligation to take that into account when we make decisions about intervening?”

Most scientists I spoke with see little reason to fear Powell’s tree, given the profound disruptions forests have already endured: logging, mining, development and a relentless influx of tree-destroying insects and diseases, among which chestnut blight has proved to be a kind of opening act. “We’re introducing new whole organisms all the time,” says Gary Lovett, a forest ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. The transgenic chestnut “would have less of an impact than that.”

Donald Waller, a forest ecologist recently retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, goes further. “I sketched out a little balance with risks on one side and rewards on the other, and I just kept scratching my head over the risks” that this transgenic tree could pose to the forest, he told me. By contrast, “the side of the page under the rewards is just spilling over with ink.” A blight-resistant chestnut would finally notch a victory for the embattled forest, he says. “People need hope. People need symbols.”

So there are two forest ecologists who are OK with it.

An ag economist who was the Chair of an NAS panel (on Forest Health and Biotechnology? Well, OK)  raises questions about the APHIS regulatory system which fall into the realm of  moral philosophy.

Folks who think the  (possibly bad) “commercial forest industry” is using this as a Trojan Horse.  For the last twenty years, I’ve been saying transgenic  trees just aren’t practical for forest industry and perhaps I’m right -as none have shown up.

and “Monsanto is evil”? It’s hard to think of TACF-chestnut restoration enthusiasts- or professors at SUNY ESF for that matter, as evil.

It’s really hard for me to see any bad guys here.  If you don’t want them, fine. But there seems to be some needless enemizing going on.

I’m with the forest ecologists here, and will be submitting my comments. Here’s a link to further information on how to comment via TACF.


10 thoughts on “APHIS Public Comment Period Open for Deregulating Transgenic American Chestnut”

  1. According to a report issued in January 2019 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Biotechnology has the potential to help mitigate threats to North American forests from insects and pathogens through the introduction of pest-resistant traits to forest trees.” The report, Forest Health and Biotechnology: Possibilities and Considerations, recommends research and investment to assess and improve the utility of biotechnology—genetic engineering and similar technologies—as a forest-health tool (see tinyurl.com/ybor9ou4).

    • “Biotechnology has the potential to help mitigate threats to North American forests from insects and pathogens through the introduction of pest-resistant traits to forest trees.”

      I mean, what could possibly go wrong?!?

    • The NAS report, Forest Health and Biotechnology ; Possibilities and Considerations also raises flags that the preservation of forest health cannot be guaranteed by federal agencies if genetically engineered trees are deregulated for release into the wild. In addition to the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, federal agencies that would be charged with evaluating the risks of the GE D58 American chestnut include the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. The NAS writes, “There are no specific regulations or policies that those agencies apply to biotech trees.” They go on to state, “Forest health is not accounted for in the regulations for the use of biotechnology or for other approaches to mitigating forest tree insect pests or pathogens.”

      • Hi Anne, twenty years ago I worked on a CEQ-OSTP effort to review biotech regulation for releasing GE organisms into the wild. I’ve followed this issue ever since. It’s interesting to see how the issues have changed or not over the years.

        I don’t know if you follow this, but the term “forest health” is used in many different ways, by many people to mean different things. So I don’t know how this NAS study defines it, nor which specific things this NAS study would add to the standard APHIS plant deregulation procedures to apply to forest trees. Certainly, as it shows in the box on page 161 of the study, there are many things considered in the NEPA analysis for deregulation. A person could ask “why should large woody plants have different requirements than other plants?” and even “why should forest trees for restoration have different requirements than fruit trees?”

  2. Since approval would be a federal action that may affect the environment, I was a little surprised to see no mention of NEPA. They do say, “there has been no evidence that the enzyme is harmful to human or animal health, the environment or is a plant pest risk,” but unless they’ve got a categorical exclusion for genetically engineered trees/forests it seems like an EA should be the framework for any “public comment process.” (This coming from someone who is a big fan of historic conditions, and has grown three pure American chestnuts that are supposedly rust-resistant.)

  3. It’s kind of odd that, in the past, no one paid much attention to strange hybrid trees planted here. There used to be an experimental plantation where the Placerville Ranger District (Eldorado NF) now sits. There were tags and some placards describing what was planted. Looks like there is still something there. Some hybrids probably didn’t like that southwest facing ridge.


    I do remember seeing a hybrid with Coulter pine and some other sort. It was doing OK. There were also hybrids with imported species.

    For Sharon: The land the RD is built on was the property of IFG.


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