Podcast: Sierra Club endorses biotech chestnut tree; GM salmon coming this April? Downside of genetic engineering

Credit: Peter Wollinga/Shutterstock
Credit: Peter Wollinga/Shutterstock
Historically a vocal opponent of genetically engineered crops, the Sierra Club has endorsed the release of a disease-resistant, genetically modified chestnut tree into America’s forests. US consumers could be eating GM salmon as soon as April 2021. Farmers have been growing biotech crops for over two decades. The technology has provided many benefits, but they have not come without costs.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

After decades of delays caused by skittish regulators, advocacy groups and politicians, biotech firm AquaBounty is poised to finally commercialize its genetically engineered AquAdvantage salmon in the US. The salmon grows quicker than its wild relatives, consuming fewer resources and therefore cutting the environmental impact of the global fishing industry. Are there any remaining obstacles that could further delay the salmon’s release?
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Insect- and herbicide-tolerant GM crops fundamentally reshaped the agricultural landscape in the 1990s. They helped many farmers cut their pesticide use, reduce production costs and greenhouse gas emissions. But these benefits came at a price, namely insects and weeds that began rapidly developing resistance to the chemicals designed to kill them. As the pests evolved, so did the crops and weedkillers engineered to control them. The battle is ongoing, with farmers and scientists plotting their next steps in this arms race.

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“[I]t has become possible to directly edit genes and regulatory elements at the molecular level …. which present new risks. Indeed, the annual worldwide threat assessment report of the U.S. intelligence community (2016) added gene editing to its list of ‘weapons of mass destruction.’” So says the Sierra Club of new breeding techniques, including CRISPR-Cas9. The environmental group also has a long history of opposing transgenic (GMO) crops, mostly because they were initially developed as for-profit products by big companies like Monsanto.

Despite this general stance against crop biotechnology, the Sierra Club recently endorsed the planting chestnut trees engineered to survive a deadly pathogen that has all but eliminated the tree from America’s forests. Considering the promise it holds, the Club noted in a recent article, the GM chestnut tree is worth the (mostly hypothetical) risks it poses. Could this signal a change in how environmental groups think about genetic engineering?

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Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

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Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

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