You’ve probably heard of chestnut trees. And depending on where you live, it’s possible you’ve even driven down a Chestnut Street in your hometown.
But have you ever seen a healthy American chestnut tree in a forest?
The odds are low. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, “The American chestnut became functionally extinct by the early 20th century.”
Billions of them filled our forests, until a deadly blight from Asia nearly wiped them out. They haven’t quite gone the way of the dinosaurs, but to grow and survive today they require constant care and attention. In the wild, they die.
The only way to bring them back is with biotechnology—and we may be on the verge of doing it, through a blight-fighting innovation that enables the trees to defeat a devastating disease.
Late last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requested public comments on a GMO chestnut developed by scientists at the State University of New York and its American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project.
Here’s my comment: This is an excellent opportunity. We should harness the power of science to rescue an important native tree.
I’ve been writing about this possibility for nearly a dozen years. For me, the attraction to chestnut trees is partly cultural: My Italian-American family likes to roast chestnuts at Christmas and on other occasions.
I also appreciate the attractive wood of the chestnut. I remember how the big house across the street from where I grew up had a gorgeous chestnut handrail. On hot summer days, the owners would open their double doors, allowing me to look inside. Seeing the handrail may have been the first time I truly recognized the art of woodworking. I learned more from my grandfather, a furniture maker who built some of the original RCA television cabinets. He loved to work with chestnut.
Yet American chestnut trees are best appreciated in forests. They grow tall and fast—and contribute to the natural beauty of our world.
We know that across time, species can come and go through a process of natural selection. Yet the near extinction of American chestnut trees is unnatural. The Asian fungus that has almost wiped them out is an invasive species, brought to our shores by human activity in the 1800s. But for this, the trees still would thrive in North America.
Now we have an opportunity to save the chestnut through the miracle of genetic modification, a time-tested technique that has improved farming across the world.
In the last century, scientists learned how to move helpful genetic traits from one species to another. Their efforts have transformed agriculture, allowing staple crops such as cotton, corn, canola, and soybeans to resist weeds and pests. For years, I’ve planted them on my farm in New Jersey.
Today, this technology helps us to grow more food on less land than ever before, in a boon to just about everyone. Farmers gain more productivity. Consumers enjoy abundant and affordable food. The environment benefits as biotechnology makes conservation agriculture practices easier and more effective.
The researchers at SUNY have figured out how to move a gene from wheat into the genome of the American chestnut. It allows the trees to break down the toxins from the Asian blight. In other words, it gives the trees a natural resistance to the disease that has almost destroyed them.
Some have suggested that it would be better just to let the American chestnut tree vanish. Our forests, they say, can repopulate with Asian varieties of the tree that are more adapted to the fungus and its blight.
This strikes me as wrongheaded because it surrenders in a fight for an American species that we can win with sound science.
The global experience of GMOs—on my farm in New Jersey as well as in distant places like Australia, India, Kenya, and elsewhere—teaches us that they are a promising solution to many problems.
Let’s embrace the promise of this technology.
Let’s save the American chestnut tree.