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UK may replace trees lost to climate change with GMO varieties

November 4, 2015
European ash tree. -- Willow (CC BY-SA 2.5)

European ash tree. — Willow (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The British press is fairly screaming that the ash tree could virtually disappear from Britain in the next 20 years.

The ash dieback fungus (Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus) has been running amok in Europe for at least 20 years now and is on pace to wipe out 80 million ash trees, or 90 percent of the total ash population in the United kingdom, or nearly 20 percent of the U.K.’s total tree population.

The origin of the fungus is still something of a mystery, as are some aspects of its life cycle. It is apparently a pathogenic mutation of a formerly benign fungus — widely believed to have been brought on by human-accelerated climate change.

But not to worry, according to a spate of reports in the British press, including the Telegraph and the Guardian newspapers, scientists are proposing to make up the difference with genetically modified ash trees that will be resistant to the fungus.

Researchers at London’s Queen Mary University and at Oxford are already busily sequencing the genome of ash trees from around the world, with a goal of inserting dieback-resistant genes into Britain’s native ash species.

The process of importing genes from one species of ash tree to another, is known as “cis-genetics” (cis being latin for “on this side”) and has tested as more “palatable” to popular opinion, according to the Telegraph, than “trans-genetic” modification, which involves adding new genes to ash trees from outside the ash family.

The British government is reportedly backing the sequencing work with £1 million of funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, science bodies and the Forestry Commission.

Another consequence of global warming

Fruiting bodies of the Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus fungus.

Fruiting bodies of the ash dieback (Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus) fungus.

The ash dieback fungus was first identified in 1992, in Poland, where it wiped out untold thousands  of ash trees. It has since spread to become a real threat to many variety of ash trees across Northern Europe.

It has already wiped out 90 percent of Denmark’s ash population and has been found in Holland, France and Belgium. In 2012 it was identified in the United Kingdom.

The year the fungus was first spotted on British soil, Germaine Greer wrote a particularly cogent overview of ash dieback, meant to counter the hysteria being whipped up by elements of the British press.

Greer’s main points were that the initial panic in England had occurred in a vacuum of exact knowledge about the fungus and that the most important thing was that there were varieties of ash that showed varying degrees of resistance.

Greer said that there should a deliberate effort to identify and breed the 20 percent of ash trees that were proving to be naturally resistant to the fungus, to replace the ash varieties that the United Kingdom was certain to lose.

The kind of selective breeding that Greer suggested involves planting more of those ash trees that prove resistant to the fungus and which are presently growing on British soil, or cross breeding species of British ash trees to arrive at a species that is immune.

Cis-genetics is more like cross breeding on steroids. By drawing on the genes of ash trees from anywhere on earth, scientists aim to produce a fully fungus-resistant mix-and-match species of ash tree in a fraction of the time it would take cross-breeding to do the job.

Genetic modification has already been used to rescue tree species from near extinction.

In the 1990s the American chestnut tree was effectively resurrected from the dead — having been all but wiped out in the late 1800s by an invasive fungus from Japan called chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica). The new genetically-modified fungus-resistant American chestnut was identical to the original version in every respect except one: the genes giving it immunity to chestnut blight came from a variety of wheat.

The threat to Vancouver’s ash trees is somewhat boring

An iridescent little pest: the emerald ash borer. -- Ohio Department of Agriculture

Iridescent little pest: the emerald ash borer. — Ohio Department of Agriculture

Meanwhile, in the city of Vancouver, According to the Vancouver Sun, there are some 7,455 ash trees lining streets and untold thousands more in city parks and on private property but the threat to them from ash dieback fungus is very distant.

The more immediate danger is from the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis), an invasive beetle originally from Asia and headed this way from Ontario and the Eastern United States, where it has destroyed millions of ash trees.

The adult emerald ash borer beetle is metallic green and measures about 14 millimeters long (it easily fits on a penny — remember those?). It has black, kidney-shaped eyes and does little damage to ash trees itself, beyond nibbling on the leaves. It’s eggs, however, become larvae that feed on the inner bark of the ash tree and thus interfere with its critical circulation of water and nutrients — ultimately killing it.

In its natural habitat in Asia it’s not considered a pest but since making its presence know in North America in 2002, the emerald ash borer has proven to be an unstoppable blight, putting some seven billion ash trees at risk.

Vancouver park board has taken steps to not add to that total by choosing to plant few if any new ash trees.

The real threat to Vancouver’s trees is still developers

Even without the various invasive threats spawned by global warming, Vancouver’s trees are disappearing at an unhealthy rate.

As a recent piece in the Globe and Mail did the numbers, Vancouver has recently been losing one character house and seven trees every day — and that was just 2014. An average of 13 trees a day came down in 2013 — for a two year total of 7,300 large trees.

According to the city’s own Urban Forest Strategy from 2014, there has been a 20 percent loss of tree canopy in 18 years, with half of the loss accounted for by redevelopment.

To GM or not to GM, that is not the question

Getting back to genetically modifying ash trees in the United Kingdom for a moment.

There’s no question that science can do it but should science do it? That is a fair question; particularly as we can’t know the long-term consequences of introducing, into the natural environment, essentially artificial, genetically modified organisms.

It should also be remembered that we’ve been here before; many times.

Any rush to solve the symptoms of global warming (the unintended consequence of our over-reliance on fossil fuels) using more technology equally fraught with unknown consequences represents a vicious cycle that Western civilization has been trapped in for centuries.

Case in point:

Sperm whale oil was so good a light source that the demand nearly wiped out several species of whale. At the last moment chemists figured out how to extract kerosene from junk “rock” oil and the whales were saved. Kerosene, and soon gas light, turned out to be so good that they were used until they threatened to burn down the very cities that they lit.

Edison’s light bulb arrived in the nick of time and saved countless cities from fiery destruction but what, city planners and health officials wondered in the late 1890s, would save the cities and their residents from the awful scourge of horses?

What indeed.

Unfortunately, the technological attitude of leaping without looking (aka, “the march of Progress”) is so deeply ingrained in Western capitalism that the two may be indivisible.

If there was a three-ring binder to capitalism somewhere, I believe that it would have to contain at least a page explaining the cyclical approach to successfully exploiting the planet by exploiting technology, like so:

Step 1. Driven only by thoughts of profit and without any thought to the consequences, apply technology to depopulate, deforest and otherwise despoil the planet.

Explain to the public that what you are doing represents progress and jobs. Don’t worry, investors won’t be fooled for a second.

When evidence-based objections begin to arise to any of your environmentally destructive practices, begin by dismissing, denying and confusing them, like so:

  • The planet is too big for humans to change it that way
  • The evidence of change is inconclusive
  • The observed change could be part of a natural cycle

When the validity of the objections to your practices is reasonably certain, shift gears to defend your actions on the basis of economic necessity and delay any remedial steps until it is too late.

Then unveil  the novel and expensive technological solution that you have earlier prepared to solve the very problems that you have caused.

Step 2. Repeat Step 1.
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2 Comments
  1. Seems like a dilemma but it is sad to see the loss of certain tree like elms in the past.

    • The slow, safe way forward would be to accept the rebuke of nature and methodically crossbreed from the ash trees surviving but we are too quick to look to science and technology for a painless new shortcut out of whatever mess our blind reliance on science and technology has gotten us into. In short, we never learn.

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