Historical precedents caution that the spread of genetically modified Darling 58 chestnut tree can dangerously alter the shared environment, rendering indigenous species vulnerable
The controversy over GM hybrid mustard has hardly died, but now comes the GM tree. More than a century after the American chestnut tree became functionally extinct, the US government is weighing whether to allow a GM version to spread in the wild. “Darling 58” is awaiting clearance from the federal government to be grown in the wild. The impending decision has unleashed a fierce debate over the promises and perils of Darling 58’s clearance, and it recently echoed in the just concluded 15th Conference of Parties (COP 15) to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Montreal, Canada. This comes despite the fact that the US government is not a part of the CBD, which has 196 member states across the world.
The fungal blight, Cryphonectria parasitica, killed over four million chestnut trees in the US. The blight is believed to have travelled to the US from China. Ever since then, millions of American chestnut stumps have continued to sprout each year, but only a few survive long enough to produce the highly valued nuts. Most get re-infected with the blight and die, restarting the cycle again. Darling 58, developed at the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, is blight-resistant, and this resistance has been developed by adding an enzyme from the wheat plant, which breaks down the toxin produced by the blight disease. The researchers now, citing conservation of the species, hope to win the approval of the US government for the unregulated (note the word, unregulated) release of the variety in the wild, which, needless to say, will have immense potential dangers.
If Darling 58 gets the final nod from the US government to be released in the wild, far-reaching consequences would follow. Once released, it would be impossible to track and reverse the spread. The American chestnut tree is deciduous, shedding its leaves in autumn, and its population dwindled in the first half of the 20th century. Chestnut produces nuts with high fibre, which carry many antioxidants and have great health benefits. However, in GE tree breeding, there is an urgent need to identify technological threats before they are implemented so that some controls are created, including the possibility of a moratorium. GE trees pose a particularly high risk of contaminating other trees in an ecosystem, along with animal and insect species that depend on them. A pine tree produces approximately 100 million pollen grains per day, which can travel into the atmosphere for approximately 610 metres and more than 41 kilometres across water to an island, where they were discovered to be viable, posing a significant risk of cross-contamination. The chestnut tree is a “test case” pushed by vested interests in the timber and biotechnology businesses (behemoths like Monsanto, now Bayer) to sway public opinion.
Contextually, Monsanto’s Bollgard cotton fiasco, supposedly resistant to the dreaded pink bollworm, a decade ago in India, comes to mind. At the time of the release of this expensive seed, many Indian experts had clearly warned, but in vain, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee in New Delhi that the pink bollworm would mutate, more deadly insects would emerge, and Bollgard would fail. What happened next was that two-thirds of Bt cotton was attacked by white flies, and in Punjab, cotton farmers lost more than Rs 4,000 crore, and 15 farmers committed suicide. What happened in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra was far worse. The failure of Bt cotton resulted in the mass suicide of cotton farmers. The very high seed price, coupled with the high fertiliser cost that Bollgard needed, led farmers to bankruptcy when the crop failed. It was the most sensational blot on Indian agriculture, making it global news, when thousands of cotton farmers committed suicide. In 2010, Monsanto admitted Bollgard’s failure, packed up, and left India.
GE trees impact indigenous communities who own and inhabit the forests; the biodiversity fuels local economies, holding cultural significance with sacred sites that form the identities of these communities. Transgenic material from GE trees holds the potential to fundamentally alter/reshape the shared environment. Researchers in forestry science will do well not to be swayed by the US endeavour. We must not forget the lessons taken from Monsanto's Bollgard failure. Patents will protect GE trees, and companies selling GE trees will determine what conditions must be met to make a profit. We must be careful in dealing with them and not allow another Bollgard to happen again. Rather we should concentrate on our own strengths, for example, recently, the Gopher (Nageia wallichiana) tree was identified in central Kerala. Locally called Nirampalli, it has a Biblical connection, where the Biblical patriarch Noah used it to build the ark to survive the great deluge. We should take strides to market such indigenous trees to the world rather than depending on GM tree's.
Views expressed are personal