In its report, Forest Health and Biotechnology ; Possibilities and Considerations the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine warns that current regulatory structures are not sufficient to provide oversight of biotech trees.
Researchers at the SUNY Syracuse School of Environmental Science and Forestry are expected soon to submit an application requesting the deregulation of an American chestnut tree genetically engineered to resist a deadly blight. It would be the first GMO plant approved for planting directly into wild ecosystems with the intent of spreading uncontrollably and with no follow up to monitor impacts.
A diverse group including scientists, farmers, foresters, Indigenous Peoples and others has come together to raise flags about the unknown, unknowable and irreversible risks of releasing GE trees into forests. They echo concerns from the NAS that U.S. federal agencies are entirely unequipped to deal with assessing the potential environmental, social or economic risks or impacts of this proposal.
The NAS report 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. The federal agencies that would be charged with evaluating the risks of the GE American chestnut include the US Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, 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."
They further warn, "as is the case with other biotech plants, some biotech trees could become commercial products without any oversight by the three regulatory agencies." The USDA, which is the U.S. agency specifically tasked with regulating biotechnology products, does not currently require oversight for all biotech applications, but only those that could be considered a "plant pest." Genetically engineered trees transformed using other technologies could be released into the environment with no regulation at all.
"The arcane, decades-old regulations being used by federal agencies to address the potential impacts of releasing long-lived GE trees into forests are entirely inadequate, and I am very glad the NAS is raising this concern as well," said Anne Petermann, Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project. Petermann testified before the NAS during a hearing on risks, concerns, potential problems of using biotechnology to address forest health, which was part of the year-long study that produced the new NAS report. (You can read an OPED on the topic by Anne Petermann and colleagues in The Hill here). "If these trees are deregulated and released into wild forests, there is no mechanism to monitor them, no way to know the impacts they are having, and now way to call them back if a problem emerges at any time over the 200 year lifespan of the tree. These trees must never be released into the wild.
The NAS report also highlights particular impacts the release of GE trees into forests would have on Indigenous peoples. The report reads, "In some indigenous communities, genetic engineering has come to be viewed as violating tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and the natural order and...might be interpreted as violating indigenous peoples' rights."
"Even with regulatory oversight the introduction of GE trees has potential cultural and ecological ramifications that are quite significant," Said Brenda Joe McManama, of Indigenous Environmental Network. "There is a history of regulatory structures being circumvented to advance dangerous GMO technologies to the detriment of communities, farmers, and species like honey bees and Monarch butterflies. And according to the NAS, the responsible federal agencies are not even capable of providing adequate oversight. The risks and impacts of deregulating the GE American chestnut could be devastating, yet there is no structure in place to monitor them."
The report also concludes that although there are mechanisms in place to alert neighboring countries about genetically engineered forest trees that could enter their territory, a lack of monitoring means GE trees could migrate across national borders without notice. In the case of GE American chestnuts, they could easily cross the border into Canada.
GE Chestnut White Paper: Dr. Rachel Smolker and Anne Petermann are producing a White Paper detailing the issues, concerns, risks and science behind the genetically engineered blight resistant American chestnut tree. The paper is currently under review and will be available soon. To be added to the list to receive it when it is released, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For More Information Contact:
Press Secretary Steve Taylor email@example.com +1.314.210.1322
Executive Director Anne Petermann firstname.lastname@example.org +1.716.364.1188