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Violating the Sacred: GMO Chestnuts for the Holidays?

Violating the Sacred: GMO Chestnuts for the Holidays?

BJ McManama

Is our meddling risking further damage to already fragile ecosystems that have since compensated for the loss of the American chestnut tree?


The Eastern Chestnut (I always instinctively capitalize tree names) was more than just nuts and timber. It was the giant of the eastern woodlands - the Redwood of hardwoods. On its preferred habitat of dry ridge tops and moderate south-facing slopes produced a 150 foot canopy that covered over even the white oaks, and was keystone for the whole ecosystem down to the forest floor - which was far more open and brush-free than now. Its nuts supported robust wildlife in numbers and size (like the other giant - the now-extinct eastern Elk) that cannot be supported today with the acorns of the oaks that replaced them.

While I was just an infant when the chestnut blight decimated the Chestnuts of the mid-Atlantic region, I do remember going to a wooded hilltop near my house in Fairfax Virginia to marvel at this dead monolith - only a tree trunk - but it still towered through the tops of all the other trees. Slowly-rotting dead limbs lay on the floor that were bigger than the biggest oak trunks. I didn’t know what they were at the time - I imagined that they were relics of a time when nature had different rules or something.

Of course, since then, other introduced-pest-ecological disasters followed - the American Elm - gone, the Fraser Fir - gone except for Christmas tree farms, the eastern Hemlock (which grew up to 200 ft tall in the S. Appalachians) - 95% gone from everywhere south of 41 degrees or below 4000 ft. and in the past few years, the White Ash - totally gone.

I’m all for the use of GMOs in this sort of application. The harm of GMO’s more broadly is economic - making life forms “intellectual property”) which is a serious concern and why I’m opposed to GMO food products. But there is zero evidence that GMO products are toxic or harmful. There is potential ecological harm from GMO’s like any introduced foreign species. But, these GMO chestnuts are being developed by and for the public on public lands. American Chestnuts are not a foreign species and the eastern woods in many areas, unfortunately, are already full of foreign introduced trees and weeds.

Let’s do this, and also get busy re-introducing Hemlocks to the Appalachian hollows too.

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We share DNA with trees, we share the same destiny. The conditions that kill off these trees is not going to be fixed in this way. It is just another big mistake.


The conditions that killed off the trees were human made. Only humans will create the conditions for their restoration.

Negativity-negativity. Nihilism, even. Louis IV (Apres moi, le deluge), even.

Views like this only come from white liberals - like the globe-trotting old white liberal I just had some strong talk with in the last bar open today on the South Side an hour ago. He seemed to be totally oblivious of his lifetime privilege as a rich white person (all that money for traveling around and even owning part of “ranch in Hawaii” had to come from somewhere). We need less of that.

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Or, they (we) could just let nature do what it does and learn to live as a part of it. I would think you could understand that by now.

I think this would be great material to assign to a HS or college class on critical thinking, with a challenge for students to find the holes. There is scientific veneer, including terminology and some links to scientific sources, but the article is primarily an exercise in alarmism based on exaggeration and innuendo. Again and again, critical claims of the article seem to come out of nowhere.

para 2. Really? This sounds like romanticizing native American life, with its confident claims about things that happened centuries ago among peoples who left no written records.

para 3. Now we start to see the author’s fundamental confusion. He keeps drawing attention to human greed, as if this, rather than the chestnut blight, was what wiped out the chestnut.

para 5. topic sentence: “There is no question why decades of dedicated and extensive research has been done to return the American chestnut to the forests it once dominated.” Really? Why has there been so much effort to return the chestnut, not just research, but the efforts of thousands of unpaid volunteers? The author ultimately questions whether returning the chestnut is a smart thing to do, so I’m really curious what he thinks is the reason. But this paragraph does not answer the question. It just goes on to talking about research.

The Nature article cited (https://www.nature.com/news/plant-science-the-chestnut-resurrection-1.11504) indicates that for 60 years, researchers have been trying to breed a hybrid with the resistance of the Chinese chestnut but the size and other characteristics of the American chestnut. This hasn’t yet succeeded.

The same article also mentions attempts to put genes from the Chinese chestnut into the American one. The engineered Chestnut has a single gene from wheat. That doesn’t sound too threatening to me. Besides, the whole plan is to let this interbreed with other chestnuts still surviving in the wild, to preserve genetic diversity. That takes away the argument about the mysterious unknown possible background mutations that are so frightening to the author.

para. 8. The lead-off sentence “It was, in the early years” seems to be complete speculation. Again, the theme is human greed, but it was a fungus that killed off the chestnut. The author seems to be just plain confused about this. He can’t seem to keep the villain of the story straight in his own head, because he wants to introduce humans as the chestnut-killing villain, to reinforce his theme that we need to learn from our past mistake (of killing off the chestnut the first time, which we didn’t) not to meddle with nature.

para 9 and 10. This seems sneaky to me. The first paragraph is a set-up describing a team of researchers led by a named person, Powell. This really should have a link behind “recently announced”. If you are writing a piece stimulated by a recent announcement, then we need to see the announcement, probably a university press release. I was not able to find any recent press release about this. I suspect that the story refers to a 9-month-old release here:


Then in para. 10, we read that “Powell and his team hope that” the regulatory process is going to be made easier. This shows that the writer is not a journalist. You don’t put attribute motives to a source as a journalist except on the basis of specific statements, and none are provided. This is a smear job, attempting to make it seem like Powell and his team are greedy capitalists trying to take advantage of a loosened regulatory regime under Trump. The author should be ashamed of himself at this point. My impression from my personal experience and from what I’ve read, is that researchers like Powell love the chestnut in the way that some other people love certain breeds of dogs or horses. One of my former scientific colleagues worked on controlling chestnut blight for 30 years before retiring.

In short, this article is full of loose thinking and it represents a low standard of journalism. It doesn’t belong on Common Dreams. There are about 6 different versions of this article that were released about the same time.


What an amazingly arrogant attitude. That’s like saying that human actually have the ability to fix what we have destroyed, like the 90% of all life in the ocean , which we’ve stripped mined. The forests we repopulated with mono-cultured trees. The coal and other minerals taken and redistributed across the globe.

These are all outcomes of corporatization…not human interference. Certain humans interference.
WE humans have been trying to stop them for many generations. We are trying to stop them now. They just opened the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling against our will and expressed desires. Talk about fixing the issues is like trying to stop a bull with a pen. You can’t stop the cancer of greed and lack.

Here on Maui, we used to export papayas unti a Gmo version was introduced and now not only are there no more non-Gmo varieties but we can’t export them to Japan or other countries that won’t import Gmo varieties.
The people voted to limit Gmo plants until research was conducted and they were proved to be safe. The courts overturned OUR overwhelming victory in favor of Monsanto .
Unfortunately Monsanto is huge on Maui …

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That’s false. GMO papaya saved the papaya industry and Japan imports them. You can see all the GMOs Japan approves here, and papaya is on the list: ISAAA dot org and click “approvals list” by country.

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