First to benefit could be the American chestnut tree, which has a blight tolerant version ready to go, but how can an academic nonprofit afford to get it approved when they intend to give it away for free?
In the last hundred years approximately four billion chestnut trees were lost due to blight, caused when the Cryphonectria parasitic fungus arrived with chestnut trees imported from Asia. The dominant species is now a rarity because old breeding techniques failed, as did chemicals. It is a repeat of what happened with the Rainbow papaya in Hawaii with the ringspot virus.
A ghost forest of decimated chestnut trees. Thanks, nature. Image: Library of Congress.
Genetic engineering can essentially give these at-risk plants a vaccine, but activists have to stop calling a boost to nature Frankenfood because it gets donations from organic industry trade groups. The GMO battle has already been won, they just don't accept it.
Bring on the GROs - Genetically Rescued Organisms
As part of a 28 year effort by the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project there is a non-patented, blight-resistant American chestnut tree.(2) They use a gene from bread wheat that produces an enzyme which keeps the fungus from forming cankers. The enzyme is not just in all grain crops, it's in bananas, strawberries, and many other foods billions of people have eaten without issue.
Read: Genetically Engineered American Chestnut Will Help Restore The Decimated, Iconic Tree
What could be more natural than letting nature resist nature? It is 99.999 percent identical to wild American chestnuts, except four billion of these won't die.
Rather than being Genetically Modified Organisms these are examples of GROs, horizontal gene transfer that can save species. Horizontal gene transfer between species happens in nature all of the time, sometimes to disastrous effect. Ancient hybrid attempts have led to induced mutations and terrible outcomes plenty of times but we only track the successes. All the sweet potato varieties we eat today were genetically modified by the same bacterium 8,000 years ago.
Why not harness that? Why would regulations make it impossible to get approved without a corporation that wants a patent paying a fortune for lawyers? There have been no unintended effects on the GRO trees and not even on other organisms, like beneficial fungi that coexist with them.
Will 'we don't hate science, we hate corporations' rationalizations by environmentalist allow this without a fundraising campaign to promote fear and doubt? Unlikely, if Golden Rice - which is engineered to produce beta carotene - is an example. The naturally fortified rice, which could prevent 500,000 cases of blindness per year, had no corporate interest so $2 billion in environmental groups were able to use the lack of company involvement to claim it was just mad scientists who don't know what they are doing, and the lack of corporate lawyers to keep efforts to provide solutions to the public from getting approved.
Thanks to government getting out of the way of science, the American chestnut has a new fighting chance.