The disagreement over genetically-modified organisms has shown up in an unexpected place: Efforts to resurrect the American chestnut tree, which was wiped out by blight last century.

The American Chestnut Foundation has spent years cross-breeding a few surviving American chestnut trees with blight-resistant Chinese chestnut trees, a smaller less elegant relative. The idea is to create a tree that looks like the American chestnut but has most or all of the Chinese vigor. I’ve written about their efforts in New Hampshire many times, such as when six of the trees were planted in Concord.

Last year researchers at the New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which is attached to Syracuse University, said they were developing a genetically modified chestnut that could shrug of the blight. They’re looking for permission to test them in the wild. Here’s a Science magazine article about it.

This plan eventually got support from The American Chestnut Foundation, and that is causing something of a backlash. On Thursday, two board members of the Massachusetts/Rhode Island chapter, including the chapter president, said they were quitting because of it.

“We are unwilling to lift a finger, donate a nickel or spend one minute of our time assisting the development of genetically engineered (GE) trees or using the American chestnut to promote biotechnology in forests as any kind of benefit to the environment,” their statement said.

The idea of releasing genetically engineered organisms into the wild creates fear of unintended consequences: What is the gene migrates to another species and does something unpleasant and unexpected? That’s not an unreasonable fear, although I’m afraid we’ve screwed up the environment so badly we’re going to have to accept the risk and start using GMO crops if we want to feed 10 billion people in a warming world. That’s not an argument for chestnut trees, however.


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