Genetically engineered trees are growing threats to eastern US forests
To the Editor:
We are closer than ever to climate tipping points that could significantly change life as we know it. Bearing the brunt of the climate crisis are our forests, which are the basis for so-called nature-based solutions, or NBS.
These NBS schemes are not, however, intended to seriously address the climate crisis, but to provide “offsets” and other excuses that enable industry and governments to maintain business as usual. These NBS schemes underpin the political push to develop genetically engineered trees for agriculture and forestry offsets. While they may sound appealing on paper, the reality is that GE trees could further exacerbate the climate crisis by threatening forest ecosystems, Indigenous peoples, and biodiversity, especially in eastern forests.
An American chestnut tree has been genetically engineered with a wheat gene to resist fungal blight, and despite the fact that not enough testing has been done to prove this is safe, it is being considered for deregulation and researchers intend to release it into wild forests throughout the eastern U.S.
Eastern forests are additionally threatened by a new GE poplar, developed by the start-up company Living Carbon, that is engineered to kill fungus and grow faster. The USDA has decided not to regulate this tree due to the technology used to develop it, which leaves the door wide open to the development of huge monoculture plantations. Living Carbon also intends to sell these trees to timber multinationals and large landowners for industrial plantations. They are marketing the carbon “stored” in these rot-resistant plantations as “carbon offsets” to polluters that enable them to avoid emissions cuts–for which they would get a cut of the profits.
There are no long-term assessments of the risks these GE trees pose to forest ecosystems, water, or nearby human communities. Rather than provide a solution, GE trees have the potential to damage forests, and escalate climate change, environmental destruction, and economic inequality.
As concern about the climate crisis intensifies, so does rhetoric surrounding the role of forests, trees and carbon storage in climate mitigation. The science is clear, however, that halting destruction of forests, which includes respecting the territorial rights of communities and peoples who depend on forests, is among the most effective, proven, and available means of removing carbon from the atmosphere.
Yet GE trees and the plantations, especially in the proposed locations, threaten forests, communities and health, as well as diverting resources from proven effective and equitable solutions. GE trees will not solve climate change but exacerbate it by interfering with efforts to protect and regenerate forests. Without a fundamental systemic transformation, no progress towards a liveable future will be made.