Strauss’s projects have included experiments like breeding trees that require less water, tolerate saltier soil, grow faster, or could more efficiently be used for green fuels of the future. (Biofuel made from fast-growing plantation trees like poplars could someday prove to be a viable substitute for corn-based products.) Strauss is also trying to make farmed trees sterile, and to engineer trees that are easier to turn into paper, thus requiring fewer nasty chemical inputs in the paper-manufacturing process.
The sterility research may be the most important: if any type of genetically engineered tree is ever going to be approved for commercial use, there must be airtight science to show that they won’t spread into the wild, threaten native trees, or upset the ecological balance by passing along genes they weren’t supposed to. Imagine, for example, if genes for faster growth made their way into an already invasive species like Himalayan blackberry or Scotch broom. “There’s obviously a history of sterile trees, seedless grapes and whatnot in horticulture,” says Brian Stanton, managing director of global tree improvement for Portland-based GreenWood Resources, a timber products company focused on sustainable tree farming. “Steve is making terrific progress in this area.”
The rub is that experimenting in the greenhouse gets you only so far. Nature’s vicissitudes can’t be mimicked indoors, which means that at some point, the research has to move outside. It is here, where GMOs meet field trials, that this issue becomes explosive. Indeed, seven years ago, field trials gone awry put Oregon in the global spotlight of the battle over GMOs.
Follow the rising grade from the town of Warm Springs toward the farmland of Madras, turn west off of Highway 26, and you’ll soon arrive at a cluster of green buildings with a line of pickup trucks out front. Inside the cavernous processing facility at Central Oregon Seeds, founding partner Mike Weber checks weather reports and measures the moisture content of seed samples from a nearby field before sitting down to explain what happened back in 2003.
A windy summer afternoon was all it took. The Ohio-based grass-seed and garden-supply giant Scotts (now Scotts Miracle-Gro) had developed a transgenic variety of grass. Creeping bentgrass is the dense, verdant turf you see on golf course greens. Scotts’ particular variety was engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate, known to the rest of us as Roundup. If Roundup-resistant grass proved successful, groundskeepers at golf courses worldwide would be able to more easily kill unwanted weeds and grasses while sparing the coveted lush, green carpets.
Scotts contracted with Oregon growers to plant 400 acres of transgenic grass. Because the bentgrass was an experimental crop, agriculture officials and farmers wanted it sequestered so that it couldn’t contaminate the Willamette Valley’s grass-seed farms, which fuel a $500-million-per-year industry. Locating the transgenic grass on the east side of the Cascades meant the mountains would provide an effective ecological buffer. Still, 400 acres is a large test area. As Jim King, the company’s vice president of corporate affairs, put it, Scotts was “proactively pursuing deregulation, so that the day they got approval, they’d have seed to sell.”