But GM fuels or biofuels cooked in a giant vat are substantially different from GM plants growing outdoors, and few GMOs make people as nervous as transgenic trees. Trees, after all, conjure Wordsworthian notions of nature’s purity. The more substantive concern is that they could spread genes that might harm wild trees—or spread a trait that makes it harder for humans to be good stewards of the land. After all, herbicides like Roundup are critical tools for wildlife managers. As one conservation scientist put it, the worry about biotech crops is not so much that a nefarious corporation is trying to push harmful products onto farmlands or into Happy Meals, but that GMOs could spread pesticide- and herbicide-resistant genes to other plants, and eventually those very pesticides or herbicides will no longer work.
In the case of the Madras grass escape, scientists’ conclusions about how much harm was really done have landed far from the sensational media reports. OSU professor of weed science Carol Mallory-Smith, OSU crop scientist Marvin Butler, recently retired USDA geneticist Reed Barker, and other experts all agree that the Roundup-resistant bentgrass blunder has had, and will likely have, negligible ecological effects.
That is not to say that they, or anyone close to this issue, is nonchalant about what happened, or about gene flow in general. But these wayward grass plants are not a threat to the high desert environment. Pull a grass clump out of the ground or nuke it with any other herbicide—let alone a dose of dog pee or organic manure—and it will die the same undramatic death as any other clump of grass. “If you’re not trying to kill it with Roundup,” says Mallory-Smith, “you won’t be able to tell the difference.”
All transgenes, from whatever crop, will spread to some extent, says Strauss. “This is well known and is also true of all conventional agriculture and forestry. The question is: When does it matter?”
Which brings us back to one of Strauss’s core research missions: the catch-22 of sterility. “Unless Steve finds a way to sterilize these plants without limiting speed of growth, commercialization will be hard,” says Jud Isebrands of Environmental Forestry Consultants. But how can Strauss find the key to tree sterility if no one will support, or even host, his field research?
The hurdles and costs of getting permission to run and manage extensive field trials of a GM crop are a huge disincentive for most companies or institutions. Oftentimes, the only firms that can overcome these barriers are multinational giants like Monsanto. It’s an irony not lost on Strauss: opposition to GMOs has led to tighter restrictions and higher costs to enter the market. That means that anti-GMO greens are, at least indirectly, gift-wrapping a monopoly for the very Monsanto executives they loathe.