From GENE LOGSDON
I am against Big Ag trying to use genetic modification to monopolize the food business, but I don’t damn all genetic modification. First of all it is useless to do so because there are a zillion possible applications of this biotechnology and science is not about to abandoned all of them. And there is good in it I think, although I am not knowledgeable enough to speak with any authority. For example, scientists have been experimenting for some time at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to put a wheat gene (of all things) into the American chestnut tree that helps the tree to resist the blight that brought it to near extinction. The wheat gene keeps oxalate or oxalic acid from accumulating in the wood of the tree. Oxalate is a necrotic agent to which the tree is extremely susceptible, and if I am starting to sound erudite, I must add that I am just repeating what the news is reporting and don’t really know oxalate from oxbows.
It sounds like good news to me because I think losing the vast stands of American chestnuts in the Appalachians a century ago was a terrible tragedy that has not been properly recognized. This is just my theory, but I think that the loss of this tree is why we associate the Appalachian mountains with poverty. I will even go farther and say that a forest of hundreds of thousands of Chestnut trees could enable a human society to live virtually forever at peace with the environment and even (now you know I am taking leave of my senses) allow a society to live independent of the kind of destructive money economy that is now threatening to do us in.
How so? Last week I talked about king corn and what a toll it can take on human societies that rely on it too exclusively for sustenance. The American chestnut was the corn of the eastern United States mountain ranges but it took no toll whatsoever on the people who lived on its beneficence. It did not have to be cultivated at all. It renewed itself. Its bountiful nuts fed people, made flour for breads, and fattened hogs and livestock. Most important, the trees grew on land not otherwise appropriate for farming. No fossil fuel or fertilizer was needed to produce all that food. Its leaves are richer in the key plant nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than other forest trees. More than that, chestnut wood is very slow to decay and makes an excellent building material and fuel for home heating. One of the reasons the Great Depression was so bad, I like to argue, is that it coincided with the death of all those trees. The mountain people, deprived of their traditional way of living, migrated to cities, looking for work. I am not afraid to risk sounding too blue sky and say that if we could again clothe the Appalachian range with American chestnuts, we could make a huge leap forward in reducing carbon pollution as well as a lot of other environmental dangers and once again have an economically free and independent society living there.
For a century, foresters and scientists have been hard at work trying to save the American chestnut and restore it to its former glory. Their work has been slow but steady and may result in success without gene modification. But if the latter works or speeds up the process, I’m all for it. Already scientists have demonstrated that chestnuts from trees with the wheat gene in them are safe to eat.
Doing a little research for this post, I was surprised to find out that there are quite a few small stands of American chestnut still surviving. No one knows for sure why, but it appears that they are growing in locations where the fungus can’t spread easily, as it could through most of the Appalachian mountain range. Crosses between various Asian chestnuts and our native tree resist the disease and are now growing all over. Whether these crosses will ever equal the American version in tree size, quality of wood, or ability to spread and acclimate to the American chestnut’s range remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I vote to add the gene-modified chestnut to the effort.