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The American Chestnut Comeback

Cornelia Poku
Cornelia Poku
May 6, 2020

What do Gen Y, Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers all have in common?

They’ve all likely never roasted “chestnuts on an open fire.”

That’s because the American chestnut tree went extinct in the 50’s when a fungus named cryphonectria parasitica arrived from Japan and started killing off the trees. The blight effectively suffocates the tree, cutting off the top and the bottom of the tree from trading nutrients, leading to a slow death.

Billions upon billions of chestnut trees wasted away from 1900 to the 1950s until eventually the trees were gone. “The American chestnut tree survived all adversaries for 40 million years, then disappeared within 40,” says the American Chestnut Foundation.

Photo of cryphonectria parasitica. 
Courtesy: The American Chestnut

Aside from the ecological damage—the diminishing canopy of our nation’s eastern forests and the biodiversity that chestnuts supported—the near extinction of the tree took down an entire industry centered around chestnuts; chestnut farmers in Appalachia lost their business and had nothing to turn to. Other industries that depended on chestnut trees, like tanners, the timber industry, and even animal farmers who depended on chestnuts as animal food, had to rapidly adapt.

Another benefit lost? American chestnuts sucked more carbon dioxide from the sky to fuel their growth than its plant peers.

American life has since adjusted in the absence of the chestnut.

But that’s part of the problem; we adjust to loss. Most of human history is the story of loss; some due to natural forces out of our control and some because of our control. Loss of animal species, plant species, nations, human life…

What if we could adjust to gain?

In 2013, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry tree geneticists, Charles Maynard and William Powell announced they have achieved an American chestnut tree that defends itself against blight.

So why aren’t we outside picking fresh chestnuts from our backyard already?

The government regulation process is currently causing a hold on wide-release of the blight-resistant chestnut tree.

“Being regulated by three different agencies is kind of overkill,” Powell shared with Gabriel Popkin in a recently published New York Magazine piece about the new chestnut tree. In order to be able to plant the transgenic seedlings in public spaces, Powell’s team needs to report different research and metrics to the United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency and enter the multi-year regulation process for each one. “That really stifles innovation in environmental conservation,” he added.

Burdensome and inhibitive regulation is a persistent roadblock across biotech innovation. We’ve previously talked about examples of how it’s slowed genetically modified salmon from coming to market; we know we can enhance animal well-being, arm pigs with resistance to African Swine Fever and chickens with resistance to avian influenza; recent innovations in gene editing can save crops like oranges, cocoa beans and coffee beans from harmful diseases that have the potential to render them extinct. But we need regulations that are science-based to keep up with the speed of technology.

We shouldn’t need to wait years to make improvements that are safe and ready now.

Among some of the other benefits of American chestnuts are its ability to grow in otherwise unusable soil, helping to restore “degraded landscapes.” It also has the potential to be an abundant and incredible source of nutrition for a world that is frantically trying to find more ways to feed 9 billion people by 2050.

As Popkin wrote in his piece, “repairing the natural world does not necessarily mean returning to an unblemished Eden. It may instead mean embracing a role that we’ve already assumed: engineers of everything, including nature.”

So let’s make space in forests and in government for a new chestnut and then hopefully—soon—four generations of Americans will finally roast chestnuts on an open fire.