AP: The public relations story of the American chestnut is that genetic engineering is being used to restore this once great tree to its former range--much of the eastern US. It was once the dominant tree in eastern forests. They grew to be huge trees--16 feet in diameter and 250 years old. Then, a fungus introduced from Asia wiped out most of the trees in the first half of the last century. So the argument is that GE will put bring this tree back to its former glory.
However, as I pointed out, there are non-GE methods being used to bring back the chestnut. And because American chestnuts stump sprout, there are still quite a few wild chestnuts in the forests, some of which get fairly large and old enough to produce chestnuts. But, as I said, the GE method and the non-GE methods are incompatible, as the release of GE chestnuts into wild forests, which is the plan, will eventually result in the contamination of wild chestnuts with the engineered DNA.
So why are Monsanto and ArborGen involved? They are promoting the idea that GE trees can be used for conservation, as a way to open the door to GE eucalyptus, poplar and pine, which are also extremely dangerous and to which the public is staunchly opposed.
JB: Maybe this is a bit disingenuous, but why would Monsanto and ArborGen want to put the wild American chestnut trees at risk? Is this simply a case of the age-old profit motive at work?
AP: Companies like Monsanto and ArborGen believe that genetic engineering a plant or animal "improves" it. And yes, I imagine they are thinking mainly of their bottom line when they say that. So, as with the GE chestnut scientists, they likely do not believe there is any risk to wild American chestnuts. Quite the opposite, they believe all of the American chestnuts should be GE.
JB: These companies are ostensibly science-driven; they spend big bucks on R & D. How can that be true, Anne? How do they stack their "facts" against the "real" truth about this? I just don't get it.
AP: These companies are not science-driven, they are profit-driven. They are responsible to their shareholders. But Monsanto is especially nefarious. They quash any science that does not agree with their desired outcomes. Independent researchers and graduate students looking into the health or environmental impacts of GMOs often find their funding disappear. As we saw with the recent GMO labeling campaigns in various US states, Monsanto et. al. outspent the pro-GMO labeling crew by vast amounts and yet still, in Oregon, only won by 51% to 49%. And the pro-GMO companies lost in Vermont, where labeling was passed and now the state is being sued by Monsanto via the Grocery Manufacturer's Association.
We have to remember that before Monsanto got into seeds, they were a chemical company. They invented PCBs and knew for decades that they were carcinogenic, but never bothered to tell anyone and countless people died from PCB exposure. Likewise DDT, dioxin, Agent Orange, and on and on. ArborGen does not fare any better. They are jointly owned by International Paper, a notoriously nasty company. And ArborGen's leadership and many of their scientists come directly from Monsanto.
JB: What a toxic loop! Based on what you say, Anne, the GE chestnut really does sound like a Trojan Horse. If they have so much money and can outspend us and pull the wool over our eyes, how can we stand up to them and counter their influence?
AP: Just because companies have lots of money, huge PR machines and know how to play dirty, that does not make them impenetrable. We have on our side decades of experience with the dangers of GMOs--with several damning new studies coming out in 2014. Scientists are pushing back in other ways too, countering the nonsense argumentthat there is some kind of scientific consensus that GMOs are safe by launching a website to the contrary. Hundreds of scientists are signed onto this anti-GMO effort.
And of course there is public opinion. The public has historically been staunchly opposed to GE trees. The UN Food and Agriculture did a report in 2006 where they interviewed GE trees researchers about their main concerns about GE trees. Public opinion was the most often cited concern. The second most cited concern was GE tree contamination threats. People are getting involved all the time in our work to stop GE trees. In October, there was a conference of Indigenous Peoples against GE trees. Additionally, GE trees have not been approved for commercial-scale planting anywhere in the world except for China. This means we can still stop these things before our forests are irreversibly contaminated by GE trees. Before it is too late. People can get involved by going to http://nogetrees.orgor http://stopgetrees.org.
JB: Helpful and encouraging. Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?
AP: Only that we need people to get involved. While the possible approval of the GE chestnut may be a few years away, the USDA is already considering a petition by ArborGen to sell billions of GE eucalyptus seedlings. People can help by signing our petition demanding this petition be rejected. That petition can be found here.
In 2013, hundreds of residents and activists protested and disrupted the Tree Biotechnology 2013 conference in Asheville, NC
(Image by Anne Petermann/Global Justice Ecology Project) Permission Details DMCA
JB: Thanks so much for filling us in on this, Anne. It was a pleasure talking with you. I learned a lot.