Sierra Club Inches Toward Accepting Genetically Modified Chestnut Trees

Let's restore this giant to America's forests.


The chestnut tree was once the dominant tree in forests east of the Mississippi River, but that was before the chestnut blight. First observed at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, the blight destroyed more than 4 billion chestnut trees by the 1940s.

In 1983, a hardy band of plant scientists and volunteers founded the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) Its aim: to breed blight resistance from the Chinese chestnut tree into the American chestnut tree, while maintaining the American chestnut's characteristics. Beyond that, the group's ultimate goal is to "reestablish the American chestnut's function in its native range."

As the science of genetics advanced, the foundation added a biotechnology program. This aims to endow American chestnuts directly with a gene from wheat called oxalate oxidase, or OxO. The OxO enzyme protects the trees by breaking down the oxalic acid that the blight uses to attack them. Adding just a gene or two to the American chestnut genome would make the trees even more "native" than those back-crossed with Chinese chestnuts.

At the beginning of 2020, TACF petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to give the blight-resistant American chestnut "nonregulated status." This would allow the blight-tolerant bioengineered trees to be planted without restriction. A coalition of anti-biotech activists—The Campaign to STOP GE Trees—is opposing the petition.

Now the venerable Sierra Club is inching toward embracing the TACF's blight-resistant chestnut. The group's response to the TACF's petition gingerly concludes that introducing the blight-resistant chestnut to eastern forests likely presents "no threat to ecosystems" and "provides an environmental benefit." An article in the Sierra Club's magazine shows a similar openness to the idea.

"One of the great ecological tragedies of the last century was the destruction of tens of millions of American chestnut trees through an invasive fungal disease," I noted in my own public comments to the Department of Agriculture. "The development and wide-scale deployment of a new fungus-resistant variety of American chestnut by means of modern biotechnology would go a long way toward reversing this tragedy and restoring the ecological balance of east coast forests."

Disclosure: Over the years, I have from time to time made small contributions in support the TACF. I also wrote a case study on the foundation's work back in 1997 for the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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  1. I heard that they spliced in some Bill Gates nanites and turned the trees into 5G transmission towers.

    1. Yes, but now they will suffer from the “blue leaves of death” and require many softwood patches.

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  2. I didn't know the Sierra Club was still a thing.

    1. A guy I went to college with works for them now.
      He literally raped at least one girl.

      1. So did Joe Biden, but he doesn't remember it.

  3. Someone needs to produce 100,000 seeds of these horrible GMOs and just SPREAD them furtively in the wild! Johnny Chestnut-Seed, where ARE you?!?!?

    1. Could it be Gene Chestnut-Seed?

      1. Yea.

        Definitely not socks.

      2. How about Richard Chestnut-Seed?

        1. If he's gonna be dropping seed call him Onan.

  4. Then we need to do the same for Ash, Hemlock, and Elm....

    1. Not to mention...The Larch...The Larch!

  5. Sierra Club Inches Toward Accepting Genetically Modified Chestnut Trees
    OK. So does anybody actually give a shit?

  6. When I bought a house in the second growth forest of Massachusetts I checked to see if I could get any of these new disease-resistant chestnuts to plant. Not yet. (One group might give me a nut, but they own the tree that grows from it.) I would love to have a few almost-native blight-resistant chestnuts with the minimum GMO required to survive. I see a few natives trying to grow in the forest but they never succeed.

  7. "(One group might give me a nut, but they own the tree that grows from it.)"

    Will the tree yield fertile seeds (nuts)? If it grows on your property, I bet you could "lift" a few nuts here & there, and spread them around! The "owners" of not-your-tree, they're not going to post a sentry to keep track of all of "their" nuts, yes?

    1. Precisely to the point! Typical "modifications" accomplished by clone cuttings can spread a trait around in live trees without resulting in seed that will distribute such genetic alteration.

      If the seed won't pass along the genetic modification, it would be difficult to consider the tree planting to be hazardous on grounds of subsequent generations of chestnuts.


    From a picture-caption there...

    They were coppiced (cut near to ground level) in 2019 because they became too big to cut off all the flowers, as required by USDA permit.

    Fed-Guv SUCKS, and HATES the environment, AND the trees! WHERE is the Lorax when we need him?

    1. WHERE is the Lorax when we need him?

      Unfortunate, for me and you
      I'm gone ala monsieur LePew

      I cannot eat Green eggs and Ham
      For I am now considered Spam

      I tell myself this can't be real
      Don't I support the Green New Deal?

      Not for those with half a wit
      I'm just a useful idiot

      -The Lorax

  9. A coalition of anti-biotech activists—The Campaign to STOP GE Trees—is opposing the petition.

    A quick glance at the website suggests these aren't anti-biotech activists, they're just the usual watermelons agitating for the usual Marxism.

    1. Anti-modern civilization activists might be more appropriate.

  10. You wait! The deer who eat them will mutate, and the hunters who kill the deer and eat their meat will die of mad cow disease.

    1. Nah. You can always tell which animals have Mad Cow Disease. They're the ones that go: "MOOOOO-WA-HA-HA-HA-HA!"

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  12. Good to see Ron Bailey on the right side for once. Even better to see the Sierra Club come around. I look forward to eating American Chestnuts and tasty feral mammals fattened on American chestnuts, both as our ancestors once enjoyed.

  13. Why should we care about the seirra club?

  14. First that we can produce a resistant Chestnut is great. Unfortunately anti- group have common problem that they focus on product more than the problem the product can create. Anti- GMO groups tend to be the same. If there are problems, and there will be, let's address the problems and instead of outlawing the product.

  15. The real problem of concern occurs when severe genetic modifications begin to interfere with private ownership of tree farms. These results can't be considered natural. For example, a company invented a strain of crops that would pollinate in a manner to prevent fertile seed that neighboring private farmowners were counting on for selling to be grown by other farmers.

    At some point you face a proposition of careless bioterrorism. Others' economic plans risk similar devastation by a neighboring farm spreading fire. At what point must the fire alarm be true rather than false?

    1. Is it even possible to spread an infertility trait? Wouldn't it necessarily end in one generation?

    2. Some years ago, Monsanto sued to prevent a farmer from planting seed from his own (wheat?) crop, because part of it was fertilized with pollen blown in from a neighboring farm that had been planted with patented GMO seeds. It might not be as clear as this - there were allegations that the farmer arranged his crops to capture more of the pollen than would have happened by chance - but it's clear that current law allow a company that wants to be an a**hole to claim ownership of everything descended from a patented seed, including accidental cross-pollination with others' plants from heritage lines. (This can also apply to patented seeds produced by cross-breeding and selection rather than GMO.)

      Not that this is an issue with the American chestnut; there are no viable heritage lines to cross-breed with. But it will be impossible to restore chestnuts as a part of the forest ecology across several states if the creators of the GMO chestnut trees insist on retaining their rights to own every descendant of their seeds. You don't truly have an ecology until the trees are allowed to reproduce naturally without having to account for every seedling. (It seems to be the Agriculture Department that is currently insisting on the creators retaining ownership of individual trees and preventing natural reproduction, so I don't know what the creators intend...)

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