Although the test trees are young, Strauss can easily see that some look weak and stunted compared with wild or conventionally bred trees. For a tree, having substantially reduced lignin is a serious handicap. His assessment in the field was validated by the data. “This experiment helped us get past the hype of the low-lignin miracle tree,” Strauss says. It also exemplified the incremental reality of research: try something, learn a few facts, try something a little different, learn something more.
Yet, if Strauss’s trees aren’t freakish super-trees poised to take over the forest (they’re actually the opposite, too wimpy to do much of anything), and if valuable information was gleaned from the results, why does he request that I not record our exact location?
Because his science is under attack, literally. In 2001, eco-insurgents vandalized trees in a similar test plot. Ironically, many of the damaged or destroyed trees were not genetically engineered varieties; the attackers couldn’t tell the difference. The week of the incident, Strauss was a portrait of upbeat resilience. “The damage to our research program is actually fairly modest,” he told OSU’s news service. “Most of the older trees had already provided the data we needed and were ready to be removed. The research was coming along quite well, and the results are very promising.”
Personally, though, Strauss was shaken. A few weeks after the vandalism, he was called to Tacoma for dinner with George Weyerhaeuser, then senior vice president of technology for pulp and paper giant Weyerhaeuser, and great-great grandson of one of the firm’s founders. His company has lent support to Strauss’s research, so Weyerhaeuser (now retired) wanted the scientist to know he was appreciated. During dinner at the swank Cliff House restaurant overlooking Puget Sound, Weyerhaeuser could tell that Strauss was downtrodden. And bitter. “I saw a human being who was really wondering about the world,” he says. “I’m sure he thinks he’s on the side that’s driving safe science forward. Yet he seems to be cast in the same lot with the greedy capitalists like me, who presumably just don’t care.”
Weyerhaeuser recalls telling Strauss that someday people would value his work’s social and environmental benefits, but he now concedes that he “may have been overly optimistic.” Eight years later, the public perception of this research is largely unchanged. According to the co-director of the Global Justice Environmental Project, genetically modified trees “pose what many consider to be the most serious threat to the world’s remaining native forests since the invention of the chain saw.”
Despite such outlandish claims, Strauss says he doesn’t mind being vilified by zealots—“whacktivists,” he calls them. What makes him crestfallen is just how much the public has subscribed to the whacktivist ethos with no apparent interest in evidence-based analysis—and the ramifications that has had on his ability to conduct research.
A decade ago, some of Strauss’s transgenic trees were grown on small test plots along the Columbia River Gorge. Until 2001, some of these plots were owned by the James River Corporation, but the research project was being conducted by the Tree Biosafety and Genomics Research Cooperative, of which Strauss is a leading member.