No level-headed researcher is pro-GMO across the board. Talking to scientists, you will hear over and over again that GM crops must be addressed on a case-by-case basis, because annuals are different from perennials, food crops differ from ornamentals, wind-pollinated plants differ from seed crops, and so on. The caricature that Strauss is trying to resist is that of the environmentally reckless mad scientist. “Breeding of any kind isn’t innocuous,” he says, noting that enhancing the reproductive powers of an already weedy plant, for instance, could be trouble, whether done by way of conventional breeding or gene splicing. But breeding is something humans do, and always have done, to domesticate and improve plants, and we should not reflexively reject the newest tools for doing it.
In some ways, Strauss’s worldview and career illuminate the false dichotomy between the green movement and biotechnology. “Steve is one of the most vocal advocates for the sound application of science for evaluating the potential of this technology,” says Barry Goldfarb, a professor of forestry and environmental resources at North Carolina State University. Bradshaw, at the University of Washington, is even more emphatic: “The idea that scientists like Steve are trying to undermine public concerns or safety review processes for money, to exert domination over nature, or because they don’t think about ecological impact—that’s absurd. No one is as aware as scientists are of this impact [of transgenics] on the environment.” Strauss, his colleagues argue, is a newer breed of scientist, a green biotechnologist, whose realism is reminiscent of those environmentalists who favor nuclear power, or who at least accept that it may have to be part of our energy future if we are serious about quitting carbon.
But so many years spent trying to convince people to rethink GMOs have taken a toll on Oregon State’s tree wizard. “Maybe I should walk away and do something else,” Strauss says. He continues to hope that a company like GreenWood Resources might give transgenic poplars a chance, but he doesn’t see it happening for another decade, maybe longer.
On the drive back to campus, the rain slows to a drizzle, and Strauss confesses that sometimes he wonders whether he would have been happier working for a biotech firm. But he loves teaching and still believes in his research. As he pulls up to a traffic light, he sighs and then leans forward to inspect the bumper sticker on the Honda just ahead of us. The image is of a colorful double helix, the telltale intertwining structure of DNA. The accompanying slogan reads: “Support Our Scientists.” Strauss chuckles. “Let’s pull that person over and give ’em a kiss.”