The following is a guest post by a friend I met this summer. I’m glad to have more sets of eyes looking at Web3 and eugenics and applying this information to their areas of expertise. This is a long-form piece, so be sure to set aside some quality time to read the whole thing. It’s important. There was a lovely synchrony here. When I got the email from Ben, I’d actually just been at the archives of the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory looking at materials related to the Department of Energy’s early efforts to set up the Human Genome Project, namely Charles DeLisi’s work organizing and documenting a workshop in Santa Fe in 1986 with help from Los Alamos National Laboratory. I’ll be sharing another guest post on that expedition shortly.
The Roots of the G.E. Chestnut Tree
In recent years there has been a lavishly funded P.R. campaign by the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) to promote the transgenic chestnut tree, Darling 58, developed at SUNY ESF. This is a significant first, as it would be the first transgenic (genetically engineered) tree to be deregulated in the continental U.S. and large amounts of funding from industry and “non-profits” have backed the project. The engineered trees express a gene from wheat (more specifically from wheat germin) that produces an enzyme called oxalate oxidase (OxO). This OxO producing gene has been put into other transgenic crops and is alleged to confer some resistance to chestnut blight for reasons that aren’t clearly understood but are thought to be related to OxO’s ability to produce hydrogen peroxide and break down the excess oxalic acid made by the fungus. Serious questions have been raised about the overall, long term, ecosystem wide unknown effects stemming from putting a wheat gene into a chestnut tree and specific criticism has also called into doubt the effectiveness of this method as a long-term blight prevention strategy.
Setting science aside, there’s a deep symbolic and cultural significance in combining the genetic material of these two organisms, in particular. In the Western world, wheat is the crop most associated with annual, forest clearing, plow agriculture, with the rise of states as we know them, and ultimately with the development of Western “civilization” itself in Mesopotamia. Chestnut trees, particularly in Europe but also in Asia and the Americas to some extent, were once a symbol of independence from that very civilization, of the generosity of the forest, their carbohydrate rich nuts were ground into flour that was a staple of hill people on the periphery of empire, often intentionally so, for millennia. In the mountains of France and Italy, ancient chestnut trees on terraces surrounding villages and the stone huts where the chestnuts were smoke-dried and cached for the winter are still a common sight (see above photo from France – also see the photo of the West Virginia family at the beginning of this piece). The extent to which “grains make states” worldwide has been focused on by many anthropologists in recent years (for example, see here). Chestnuts were, after all, sometimes known as the “bread tree” and using our most advanced technology to literally make them part-wheat sounds like a joke, or a sort of final statement of conquest on the genetic level of the civilized, grain growing, forest clearers in the valley over the dispersed, independent, forest-garden hill people.
Here’s a smattering of the many headlines endorsing the transgenic chestnut in major publications recently: “Can Genetic Engineering Bring Back the American Chestnut?”, “We nearly killed off these trees. But biotech can bring them back”, Unnatural Selection: What Will It Take to Save the World’s Reefs and Forests?, “Gene editing could revive a nearly lost tree. Not everyone is on board.” Criticism of the project is scarce and difficult to find, even in “alternative” media, and most of it seems to be the work of Anne Petermann and her organization The Campaign to Stop G.E. Trees. Here is the white paper they released criticizing the project. A recent deadline for a “public comment period” at the U.S.D.A. on whether to deregulate (i.e. allow to be widely grown) the transgenic chestnut in the U.S. has just passed (January 26th, 2023). Online public comment periods, which are non-binding, non-transparent, and no more of a political action than tossing a coin into a fountain, have become the standard method to dress up foregone conclusions in the guise of participatory democracy. So rather than donating a “valued” opinion to the U.S.D.A.’s memory hole, the question should be asked: who is funding the transgenic American chestnut and why? In the following pages an attempt will be made to, first, briefly set the record straight that the American chestnut never actually disappeared and there is no urgent impending emergency justifying the use of genetic engineering. And second, to discuss the money and broader agendas of the individuals and organizations behind the development of the transgenic chestnut tree more at length.
The extent to which the large scale preemptive felling of still healthy trees by lumber companies, ostensibly to slow the spread of the fungus, contributed to the subsequent scarcity of American chestnuts throughout their range is hardly ever discussed. Instead we are repeatedly assured that a pestilence from Asia (fungus, in this case) is 100% to blame for the mass die off of the chestnuts. In the carefully chosen words of one of the few ecologists online even mentioning these widespread “salvage logging” operations:
“Already an economically important species, the Chestnut was subject to accelerated harvest by foresters and lumbermen who set out to conduct salvage logging operations on chestnuts already killed and the remaining virgin chestnut trees before they were killed and devalued by the blight. Some have speculated that this ambitious logging response, harvesting even the most remote and difficult stands of the steep Appalachians may have wiped out isolated pockets of Chestnut that harbored some genetic resistance.” (source)
Also intriguing in light of taking a critical look at this tendency to place all blame on a pathogen whilst ignoring all other factors is the following observation from a 1915 forestry publication quoted in the same article:
“There seems to be a combination of insects, fungous diseases and fire, or perhaps something more deep seated, such as a widespread but obscure soil or climatic change, of which the others are but manifestations of subordinate causes, destroying the chestnut in the South. The trees generally die in midsummer and, unlike blight-killed trees, seldom sprout from the stump after the trunk is killed.” (Ibid source)
Then there is the fact that wild chestnuts living long enough to produce nuts, and thus spread their disease resistance to their offspring, still exist and are not infrequently encountered by hikers in the Eastern U.S. (including the author of this piece). They are not “functionally extinct” (i.e. never living long enough to produce nuts) as we are told. The existence of these survivors of the blight and the increasing encounters with young offspring of these survivors seems to be ignored, glossed over, or judged insignificant in articles advocating for bioengineering. Here’s a paper studying a small, healthy and spreading population of trees in Maine. The American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation (ACCF), one of a handful of other organizations that has been overshadowed by the lavishly funded American Chestnut Foundation in recent years, has been harvesting nuts from these survivor trees and sharing them with members of their organization for many years. There are also hybrids between the American species and other species of chestnut from Asia that often have some resistance to the fungal blight. These hybrids have long been available from a variety of nurseries and the chestnuts grown as a commercial crop in the East are usually mixtures of the Chinese (mollisima sp.) and the Japanese chestnut (crenata sp.) with sometimes a bit of American (dentata sp.) and European (sativa sp.) thrown in. All of these different species from around the world readily hybridize with each other and genetic drift from the transgenic chestnut could eventually lead to most chestnuts on the planet having transgenic background. Something similar is already being seen with transgenic corn.
This genie can’t be re-corked. In fact, for many years TACF publicized their primary aim as being to hybridize the American and Asian chestnuts and then backcross to the American while maintaining blight resistance. It wouldn’t be surprising if many people who have supported the organization in the past think that this is still what they’re solely dedicated to doing. For example. these former members of TACF publicly resigned from the organization after their shift to promoting genetic engineering. So if the wild American chestnut isn’t actually “functionally extinct”, if there are already plenty of hybrid Asian/American trees that resist the blight, then why is the American Chestnut Foundation being so heavily funded and why is there so much recent media coverage advertising the transgenic trees from Suny ESF as the only solution to a (non-existent) emergency?
Enter the Modified Maize: Cold Springs and Green Revolutions
“In 1983, a retired plant geneticist, Charles Burnham, then age 75, decided to take action. Burnham approached a number of biologist friends including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and Peter Raven, the head of the Missouri Botanical Garden, to support a new private, non-profit organization dedicated to restoring the American chestnut to its native forests. Burnham and one of his former students, Philip Rutter, founded the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) as a way of establishing and financing a private breeding program that would eventually create a blight resistant American chestnut.” (source).
Burnham was one of a group of students at Cornell studying under Rollins A. Emerson, quite a few of whom went on to become “the most influential geneticists of their generation” (source). The group was specifically focused on maize (corn) which they established as “one of the best known “genetic” organisms” (Ibid). The bulk of Burnham’s work was done before the age of genetic engineering as we know it today but it was one of his doctoral students, Ronald L. Phillips, who was:
“…the first to generate whole corn plants from cells grown in culture, which laid the foundation for, and sparked, a new industry, using cell-culture methods to genetically modify corn plants and other cereals. The corn cell line most widely used in the world today for genetic modification of corn has greatly accelerated the improvement of corn, as food, feed and fuel.” (source)
Burnham later worked at Harvard under Edward M. East, who is primarily remembered for his work on corn genetics and his overt advocacy of eugenics (wiki and source). Another of Burnham’s fellow Cornell maize students, Milislav Demerec, went on to run Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory (yes, that, Cold Springs Harbor although the Eugenics Records Office was then closed) where Barbara McClintock, yet another student from the same program, would study corn for most of her career and eventually be given a Nobel prize for her contributions to genetics (as would yet another fellow student of Burnham’s from the same Cornell program, George Beadle).
McClintock has since been lauded and lionized and a great deal of information about her is available online (including some letters to Burnham). Burnham also worked alongside Lewis Stadler described as “…a leading U.S. radiation geneticist” (source) who spent most of his career studying the mutagenic effects of X-rays on food plants (source).
Described in many of his high-profile and fawning obituaries after his death as the “father of the Green Revolution”, a cursory glance at the media coverage on Norman Borlaug gives the impression he may have been a deity sent from on high (or was he possibly imbued with benevolent super powers following a fortuitous encounter with a radioactive corn borer?). The Atlantic called him a “Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity”, the Huffington Post called him “The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives”, and every other major publication seems to have saluted in unison and pronounced Borlaug to be an eminently superlative individual. To get a sense of how truly hyperbolic Borlaug enthusiasts can be, have a look at his profile on the website “Science Heroes”. However, in the opinion of other critics of the “Green Revolution”, Norman Borlaug’s life’s work was essentially to be a poster child for a global movement by a handful of transnational corporate interests (initially the Rockefellers) to consolidate control of agriculture on a molecular and genetic level under the guise of solving an “emergency” which they themselves helped cause in the first place (i.e. the Hegelian Dialectic).
Borlaug received a a PhD in plant pathology and genetics, and was inspired to study plant pathology after attending a lecture entitled “These Shifty Little Enemies that Destroy our Food Crops” (source). He was a passionate wrestler (literally and figuratively) and has been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame (see photo below).
He then worked at Dupont in the early forties where, among many other things, D.D.T. was being prepared for the American market. Borlaug later testified to an E.P.A. hearing in 1971 urging them not to ban D.D.T. Borlaug began working at the Rockefeller funded International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT – its Spanish acronym). While there he helped develop wheat varieties that were especially responsive to heavy chemical fertilizer use, not sensitive to variations in local conditions, and with stout, short stems to hold up the heavy heads of grain without lodging (i.e. the classic non-locally adapted, chemically dependent, patented monoculture crop). (source) From there Borlaug travelled the world (chiefly the “third world”) under the aegis of agricultural centers funded by the Rockefellers, the Ford Foundation, and others promoting what is now often called “industrial agriculture” by critics. He went on to win far too many international awards to list here, including the Nobel prize. This piece from the year 2000 dealing with “The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Anti-science Zealotry” gives a good sense of where Borlaug was coming from and his adhominem, straw man attack against critics of genetic engineering (the aforementioned “AntiScience Zealots”) seems to have now become the primary tone and tact for corporate media to take when addressing criticisms of biotechnology. And seeing as the topic at hand is the first approved transgenic tree in the U.S., it’s interesting to note that although he spent his career coercing poor farmers to go into debt to grow patented annual crops grown with patented synthetic fertilizer sprayed with patented insecticides and herbicides and harvested with patented machinery (all of which, by a lucratively convenient coincidence, was generously developed by the companies who founded and funded the “nonprofit” research institutes he worked with), Borlaug’s undergraduate degree was in forestry. It is, after all, a gene from wheat, the crop most associated with Borlaug, that has apparently been inserted into these transgenic chestnut trees.
Much like Norman Borlaug, botanist Peter Raven, is a very prominent figure in the American plant world with a glowing reputation that begins to take on a different hue when you scratch the surface and dig into his corporate ties, specifically his deep and longstanding relationship with Monsanto (now Bayer Crop Sciences). Raven was the longtime head of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is one of the best known (read: best funded) public gardens in the U.S. The garden is not far from Monsanto’s headquarters, it’s been extensively funded by Monsanto over the years, and under Raven’s leadership the Monsanto Center, “An engineering masterpiece and model of “green architecture”, was constructed to house the herbarium and facilities for the researchers. This 2015 article in Harper’s Magazine touches on Raven’s decades long relationship with Monsanto. And yes, Monsanto is one of several major biotech corporations to fund the transgenic chestnut tree program (source). Note how it’s the only corporation on the SUNY ESF site that breaks from the pattern of directly mentioning the organization and linking to their site. Clearly Monsanto’s reputation precedes it these days. Raven also worked with Paul Erlich back in the 60’s who would go on to write the bestseller “The Population Bomb” warning of the impending collapse from overpopulation if immediate steps were not taken to lower fertility globally. Ehrlich’s predictions did not come to pass. In the late 90’s, Raven was chair of the Biodiversity and Ecosystems Panel of the President’s Committee of Advisers for Science and Technology (PCAST). This was established via executive order by Clinton along with the National Science and Technology Council. In this report Raven and his colleagues repeatedly emphasize the need for large amounts of federal funding for genetic engineering to manage “natural capital” with statements like “Transgenic organisms will become increasingly important as components of agricultural, health, pharmaceutical, and resource management activities”.
One of the key aims outlined in the report, and one that is important to keep in mind when considering the transgenic chestnut, is the much more ambitious goal of establishing a “Next Generation National Biological Information Infrastructure” (NBII-2). Essentially, this is a call for the federal government to invest heavily in extensive public/private initiatives to accumulate all known biological and ecological data down to the molecular and genetic level onto an interoperable “distributed facility” database in order to enable what they refer to as “data mining in the biodiversity and ecosystems information domain”. They specifically mention that NBII-2 will assist with genetic engineering scenarios in the future (pg. 73). This vision, which they describe as a “distributed”, “commodity based infrastructure”, that is “accrete only, no delete” sounds so similar to current blockchain based systems to gather granular, real-time data on “natural capital” so it can be commodified and bet on in carbon markets/N.F.T./“social impact bond” markets that it’s hard to believe this document was written in the late 90’s. To give just one recent example of a private sector company embodying this approach see the website for Veritree. Suffice it to say, it’s vital to keep in mind that this is the big picture view. Genetically engineered organisms like the transgenic chestnut are not being developed to fit into agriculture as we once knew it or to inhabit natural ecosystems as we once knew them. Rather, they’re being developed to fit into a new system where every aspect of life that can be quantified is put “on the ledger” using a suite of ubiquitous “smart” sensor technologies that are a part of the coming “Web3” world (see the work of Alison McDowell).
The (Bioplastic) Board of (Evolutionary) Directors
Other organizations that have funded the transgenic chestnut project have ties to these same initiatives (more below) as do Members of the Board of Directors of TACF. A look at the current Board of Directors of TACF sheds further light on the agendas behind the transgenic chestnut. William J. Cude III, the chairman of the board, spent most of his career in the medical device industry and was the founder of Coeur Inc. which provides angiography and other medical imaging equipment. Cude’s former position was “Director, Officer, Vice-Chairman and Chairman of the Washington DC based Plastics Industry Association”. This is the oldest and largest lobbying organization for the plastics industry in the U.S. So the chairman of the board of TACF has no background in environmentalism, or ecology, or plant science, or anything remotely related to chestnut trees but is instead a prominent plastics industry lobbyist. Is Cude simply leading the TACF out of a personal passion for chestnut trees? Perhaps, but I’d suggest it’s more likely we’ve just stumbled upon one of the key (not particularly) hidden agendas of the American Chestnut Foundation: Cude is working to help normalize the development of transgenic trees to be grown in extensive plantations for not only lumber but also biomass/pulp that will then be used to produce “bioplastics” and other cellulose based products. The Plastics Industry Association has a bioplastic section on their site and it’s clear that plastics manufacturers are ironically being steered towards bioplastics by prominent calls to “go green” from organizations like Greenpeace. In fact, this has been openly stated as the key purpose of many other transgenic trees around the world (as outlined on The Campaign to Stop GE Trees website) and it becomes increasingly hard to deny when you look into ArborGen (more on them below).
Timber behemoth Weyerhaeuser, America’s largest private landowner has also contributed to the project. Duke Energy has given support through the Forest Health Initiative, which is dedicated to “Advancing Forest Health Through Biotechnology”, as has the National Hardwood Lumber Alliance. Vice Chair and Governance Committee Chair, Rebecca Carter, seems to have been facilitating transactions between industry and government for many years. Among other positions she was the Director of Federal Agency and Congressional Government Relations for the Nature Conservancy and she also “worked in government relations roles at Columbia Gas Transmission” and “West Virginia Division of Natural Resources”. Her father-in-law, former President Jimmy Carter, is himself listed as an “Honorary Director” of TACF). When judging the initiatives that the Carter Center, where Becky was C.D.O. before retiring, chooses to invest in, it’s valuable to keep in mind the Carter administration’s close relationship with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor and fellow member of David Rockefeller’s Trilateral Commission, and his ideas on the coming “Technetronic Era”. Reading through Brzezinski’s explanation of what the “Technetronic Era” is and the effects it will have is similar to recent descriptions of what is now being called “the Fourth Industrial Revolution” and the link between what we might call “technocracy” and environmentalism seems to have been firmly established in the public mind in the Carter era.
Another board member worth noting is Dr. Mandy Cromwell, a Senior Director of Pharmacology at Vertex Cell and Genetic Therapies. Vertex says they are using gene editing to help treat diabetes, cystic fibrosis and other serious diseases. Needless to say, “gene therapies” have received an enormous amount of attention in recent years. Dr. Deborah Delmer, the Science and Technology Committee Chair, is a professor emeritus of plant biology at UC Davis and “In 2004, she received from the American Chemical Society the Anselme Payen Award in recognition of excellence in the science and chemical technology of cellulose” (emphasis mine). Delmer’s bio goes on to say that “From 2002-2007, she served as Associate Director for Food Security for the Rockefeller Foundation where she was involved with grant making and policy relating to the role of biotechnology in developing world agriculture.” These days she “serves on a number of advisory boards and consultant to foundations, academia, industry, and governments on developing world agriculture issues surrounding biomass production” (emphasis mine).
Dennis Liu “is currently Vice President of Education for the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and the Half-Earth Project. Previously, he directed the production of educational media at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute”. The Half-Earth Project is essentially putting into place something analogous to the NBII-2 vision described above. They’re one of many institutions dedicated to gathering the most ecological data possible by using the most advanced surveillance, monitoring, and tracking technology in order to, you guessed it, save the earth. You might say they do, in fact, want to “save” the earth, but in the computational sense of “File > Save”. The CEO of that project is Paula Ehrlich, “formerly President and CEO of the Drug Discovery Center of Innovation” (her relation, if any, to Paul Ehrlich is unclear to me). The relevance and legacy of recently deceased and fervently revered Harvard entomologist, E.O. Wilson, another honorary board member, is far too large to cover here. Suffice it to say, it’s worth looking into how his research into social insects (specifically ants) has overlapped with social engineering, economics, and cybernetics (touched on in this lecture or this post and in some of the research being funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation mentioned below).
There’s also no time to do justice to the many years of public / private maneuvering of the next board member, Ambassador Catherine A. Novelli. She is “is a Senior Advisor at Shearwater Global, a strategic consulting firm” with a linkedin profile description that is recommended reading. They’re dedicated to coming to the rescue of their corporate clients dealing with the fact that “barriers to business are back in vogue. Businesses are strong-armed into doing what politicians want. Economic policies are being weaponised, protectionism legitimised and borders rebuilt.” She also serves as President of Listening for America”, a sort of focus group and corporate intelligence organization that does “listening sessions– in the form of conversations–with a cross-section of Americans about their experiences with international trade and globalization” while also providing “up-to-date, impartial, fact-based information about international trade”. They appear to be both gathering information about how redundant people feel about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and also exposing them to propaganda on why it’s good for them. A quick look at the board will let you know whose interests they represent. “She also launched the Global Connect Initiative, an innovative partnership with governments, multilateral development banks and the private sector to connect 1.5 billion people to the Internet.” Enormous public/private infrastructure projects like this are essential for building the “Web3” future that transgenic organisms will inhabit. This connects nicely with her “seven years as Vice President, Worldwide Government Affairs at Apple Inc” where she was “responsible for Apple’s federal, international, and state and local government relations and public policy”. So it’s no surprise that she’s a also member of the Center for a New American Security. CNAS is associated with, among others, Eric Schmidt, formerly of Google, along with the Pentagon, and major arms manufacturers.
To give some idea of where CNAS is coming from, they were heavily cited by Schmidt et al in the now notorious 2021 National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence Report framing the rapid development of A.I. and weaponizing of dehumanizing, all-pervasive technologies as a national security necessity due to a new Cold War with China. Of course, this military technology is also being employed in agriculture and forestry. Tree planting drones such as the one pictured above, to give just one example of such technology, are already being used in tree plantations in Brazil and elsewhere. XAG, who manufacturers the above drone, tells us on their website that “technology is a great equaliser” and assures us that they are deeply dedicated to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (the yardstick by which “Impact Finance” deals are evaluated). They call this “Agriculture 4.0”. Much more could be said about Novelli in relation to her position as a corporate lawyer at Mayer Brown International, an enormous “white shoe” law firm with offices around the globe, prior to becoming a public/private liaison between Silicon Valley and Washington, a broker for “free trade” agreements in the Middle East, and a high-tech “environmentalist”.
And lastly, for the sake of time although there are more board members worth mentioning, if you’re wondering who’s been crafting the stories that have managed to portray a genetic engineering biotech project developed and funded by all the usual suspects as a romantic, grassroots, noble cause of ecological restoration you might have a look at board member, Anna Sproul-Lattimer. She’s a Beltway area literary agent who “believes that there’s no more powerful tool for social change than a good story. It’s why she works in publishing; it’s also why she dedicates most of her TACF volunteer work to promotion and outreach, spreading the story of the American chestnut across the country and world.” Which raises the question: whose story is this, anyway?
Branching Out: Hopping Down the Money Trail
ArborGen, another funder of the transgenic chestnut project, is “the largest global seedling supplier and the leading provider of advanced genetics for the forest industry.”. They’re now operating a state nursery in South Carolina, their “largest sales position is in the US-South“, their products “are specifically developed for land owners and managers supplying the sawtimber, plywood and other structural wood products, packaging, pulp and paper, and industrial markets (including bioenergy)”, and they manage “16 nurseries, 16 seed orchards, 32 distribution centres and three research and development facilities located throughout the United States, Brazil, New Zealand, and Australia.”. Currently they’re primarily focused on eucalyptus and pine. The graph below from ArborGen’s “business model” page compares corn yields over time, from open pollinated corn through G.E. corn, with ArborGen’s claims of their genetically superior tree yields. Remember how heavily the initial founders and funders of the transgenic chestnut were involved with corn breeding? This hammers home the fact that transgenic corn is the model for transgenic trees.
Here’s ArborGen’s board. And just to give an illustration of how the same people who are funding environmental biotechnology schemes, and thus investing in “natural capital”, are also usually funding “Social Impact Finance” schemes, investing in “human capital”, note the presence of David Knott Jr., who runs the hedge fund Knott Partners, ArborGen’s largest shareholder. The Knott family descends from N.Y.C. hotel executive and Tammany Hall politician, David H. Knott. Knott partners was founded by Knott Jr.’s father, David M. Knott, who went to the Wharton school and has been deeply involved in Impact Finance for many years (see Say Yes to Syracuse – and also check out that project’s other funders including the Syracuse Research Corporation and the quite creepy American Institute for Research and it’s more than 50 years of behavioral conditioning research). Also see the HiGro Group where the current Knott Jr. is on the Advisory Board and their prominent display of the S.D.G.’s on their site. He’s also a member of the Advisory Board of the Tenon Clearwood Limited Partnership, who “is responsible for exporting approximately 30% of the total pine products from New Zealand to the US, and is the fifth largest containerised exporter out of New Zealand”. Their website assures us they’re “sustainable”.
The Templeton World Charity Foundation gave SUNY ESF the “largest-ever charitable gift, $3.2 million” in the history of the school in 2020 “to support one of the College’s most impactful research projects – the restoration of the American chestnut tree.” Unlike many other “non-profit” funders of this project, TWCF isn’t especially well known for supporting “environmental” causes (case in point: they have a picture of the unrelated “Horse Chestnut” tree on their site). So why are they throwing such significant sums of money into the transgenic chestnut? In a previous $200,000 grant from 2017 they say the funding will be used to “support key personnel and activities to acquire regulatory agency approvals for distribution. The grant will also sponsor engagement with local and state indigenous peoples”. The more recent and generous $3.2 million gift is also stated to, among other things, assist in “completion of regulatory review”. In terms of the “engagement with…indigenous peoples” it’s worth noting that although some Eastern Cherokee have vocally opposed the transgenic chestnut tree for many years the government of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose tribal lands are west of Asheville, N.C., signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2021 with the American Chestnut Foundation not long after the TWCF received Templeton’s ample gift.
The TWCF’s support of the transgenic chestnut seems to compliment another recent grant to gather, engineer, and commodify plant genetics awarded to the “Global Crop Diversity Trust” which aims to use “new methods and tools, like speed breeding and genomics, to revolutionize the breeding of improved varieties of neglected crops, which will get climate-smart crops into the hands of smallholder farmers more quickly.” and is doing this with “innovative financing, such as member-country loans, food security bonds, crowdsourcing and crop-based fundraising”. The Crop Trust is what the next-generation Green Revolution looks like, even working with many of the same institutions such as the International Rice Research Institute that Borlaug worked with so many years ago. They’re dedicated to aggregating the genomics of crops and wild crop relatives around the world on behalf of their N.G.O. benefactors. The Crop Trust has proudly described themselves and given awards to collaborators they describe as “global gatekeepers of crop diversity”. Again, this project aligns closely with the NBII-2 vision mentioned above where “protecting biodiversity” refers to N.G.O.’s like the Crop Trust “diversifying their portfolio” of genomic data and even “going long” by not only gathering the genomics of food crops, but also of wild crop relatives.
To consolidate the genetics of wild forest trees, such as the American chestnut, is the next logical step in this same direction of engineering and commodifying the D.N.A. of all life on earth. Strangely, the TWCF’s more typical fare is the study of intelligence in a wide variety of conscious beings and the attempts to try to quantify and assign metrics to previously indefinable qualities like honesty, altruism, and spirituality. Basically, to put it in Phillip K. Dick terms, the TWCF is dedicated to helping the androids pass the “empathy test”. In fact, they aren’t even subtle about this goal; one of their initiatives is called “Beyond the Turing Test: Elucidating the Similarities and Differences between Machine and Biological Intelligence.” Considering this, their reasons for throwing so much money into this particular project aren’t entirely clear aside from the fact that patenting genes, genetic engineering, and erasing the line between the natural and the artificial seems to be right in their wheelhouse. Either way, the fact that the largest ever single donation to SUNY-ESF, a major N.Y. state school that has been around for many years and receives no shortage of funds from industry partners and their N.G.O.’s, was given to this transgenic chestnut project is significant in and of itself.
History’s Rhyme Scheme, SUNY’s “Restoration” Scheme: The Next Stanza
Although it may sound far-fetched to suggest that SUNY ESF, via direct funding and through its connection to TACF, is being used to cloak an incredibly environmentally destructive timber industry/biotech agenda in the vestments of environmental restoration and “scientific forestry”, it actually wouldn’t be the first time. SUNY ESF has its origins in the N.Y. State College of Forestry, the first such school in the country, established as a division of Cornell University in 1898. After being shut down by a highly publicized scandal, the school officially reopened at Syracuse University in 1911 and then incorporated into the State University of New York (SUNY) system when it was established in 1948. The scandal, which resulted in N.Y. state’s governor withdrawing funds from the college and the president of Cornell officially closing it down, came to a head in the N.Y. State Supreme Court case “People vs. Brooklyn Cooperage Company.” It revolved around the Forestry College using public funds to purchase nearly 30,000 acres in the Adirondacks (Franklin County) “to conduct upon said land such experiments in forestry as it may deem most advantageous to the interests of the state and the advancement of the science of forestry, and may plant, raise, cut and sell timber at such times, of such species and quantities and in such manner, as it may deem best, with a view to obtaining and imparting knowledge concerning the scientific management and use of forests, their regulation and administration, the production, harvesting and reproduction of wood crops and earning a revenue therefrom” (Ibid). After 30 years they were supposed to give the land back to N.Y. State to become a forest preserve.
The college ended up buying this “Forest Preserve” from the Santa Clara Lumber Company and immediately signed a deal with the Brooklyn Cooperage Company who built a factory on the land and laid a railroad to it (see photo above). At this point, under the guise of “scientific forestry”, the Forestry College began clearcutting it, sometimes replanting it to high-value conifer species, sometimes not. The contract stipulated that “the company agrees to take and the university to deliver at its own expense, for a period of fifteen years, such amount of wood as the company shall give written notice it requires, provided the amount shall not exceed yearly more than one-fifteenth of the wood standing on the college forest”. The expenses were allegedly so high for Cornell (who, as a public college at that time, was simply spending public money) that they didn’t even make a profit (on the books, that is).
The incident serves as a sort of cautionary tale regarding the potential pitfalls in “public/private partnerships” between the government, academia, and industry. However, it’s worth mentioning that this isn’t necessarily the consensus view. This article defends Bernhard Fernow, Dean of the Forestry College at the time, makes no mention of the Brooklyn Cooperage Company or any of the details of the case, and implies that rich landowners with summer homes not far from the “Forest Preserve”, who Fernow disparagingly called “the bankers”, simply undermined and smeared Fernow because they didn’t want cutting near their vacation homes. Seeing as Fernow would have recently returned from the Harriman Alaska Expedition and had connections with the funder of that expedition, E.H. Harriman, a Gilded Age railroad tycoon and financier whose surname would become forever synonymous with high finance, along with other rich and prominent New Yorkers, it’s difficult to imagine Fernow as a misunderstood everyman scientist being unfairly persecuted by arrogant rich people. This may well be an early example of framing all local opponents to environmentally destructive projects as privileged “N.I.M.B.Y.’s” (from: “not in my backyard”), which has since become a default method of discrediting local opposition to environmental degradation.
Regardless of whether his project was harried by snobs or not, the idea that Fernow was a pioneer of “scientific forest management” is beyond dispute. Unfortunately, this takes on a different light when you understand that this “scientific forest management” consisted of clearcutting tens of thousands of acres of native forest and replanting it with monocultures of high market value, tightly packed, conifer species. Now, as this “scientific forestry” officially enters a new era in the U.S., one which will impose monocultural uniformity and control on a genetic level, should it surprise us that it’s coming out of essentially the same institution where Fernow first proselytized it?
Should we expect different results from this old dog that’s learned a new trick?
End of Pt. 1
Thanks for putting this together Ben!
PS: I (Alison) touched on Borlaug’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center’s research in corn hybridization in a post I did last year about a conditional cash transfer program that was piloted in Mexico in the late 1990s. You can read about that here.