By Chris Lang
One year ago, the Forest Stewardship Council launched a “learning process on genetic engineering in forestry outside of FSC-certified area”. According to FSC, the aim of this “learning process” is “for FSC and its members to gain sufficient and trusted knowledge on developments in genetic engineering in forestry”. But FSC has appointed a panel of “experts” whose members have very little expertise in either genetic engineering or forest ecology, with one notable exception: Professor Steven Strauss of Oregon State University.
To describe Strauss as pro-GE trees would be an understatement. Strauss has spent a large part of his career developing and promoting GE trees. Strauss is director of the Genetic Research on Engineering and Advanced Transformation of Trees research cooperative – abbreviated as GREAT TREES. Strauss’s biography on the Oregon State University website explains that the GREAT TREES cooperative “conducts research on improved methods for efficient genetic engineering and editing of trees used in plantation forestry and horticulture”.
Strauss has actively lobbied for FSC to remove its longstanding ban on commercial planting of GE trees by FSC-certified companies. In 2019, Strauss was the lead author of a paper that argued that,
“GE tree research should be allowed immediately on certified land, and GE trees proven by research to provide value should eventually be allowed in certified forests.”
In addition to Strauss, others on FSC’s panel have worked on making genetic engineering more acceptable to the general public:
- Rachel Ankeny is a member of the GM Crop Advisory Committee for the Government of South Australia. She’s written about the opportunities for gene drive technology (in which genetically engineered insects or other organisms are designed to push new genes into entire populations of a species). In 2017, Ankeny argued that gene drive technology “could be especially useful in Australia for controlling pests and diseases”. More than 140 civil society organisations from around the world are calling for a ban on genetically engineered gene drives.
- Keith Hayes, a senior researcher at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), is the panel’s expert in risk assessment for genetic engineering. Hayes leads a research team that is “currently working on the ecological and human health risks associated with transgenic methods of controlling malaria vectors, funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative”, according to CSIRO’s website.
- Aditi Mankad also works at CSIRO and her work includes helping the biotech industry design communication strategies to accommodate people’s response to GE technologies.
There is no one on FSC’s panel of “experts” who has documented the impact of industrial tree plantations on Indigenous Peoples and local communities. No one on the panel has investigated the environmental impacts of fast-growing tree monocultures, which will be worsened by the introduction of GE tree technology. No one of the panel has researched the use of pesticides in industrial tree plantations and the impact on biodiversity and the health problems for workers in the plantations. No one on the panel has critically analysed the impacts of the pulp and paper industry and the corporations that will benefit from this dangerous technology. And (obviously!) no one on the panel has exposed FSC’s utter failure to address the social and environmental impacts of industrial tree plantations.
The lack of balance in the members of the “expert” panel exposes FSC’s pro-industry and pro-genetic engineering agenda.
FSC has certified the Brazilian pulp and paper company Suzano’s industrial tree plantations. Suzano has developed, tested, and obtained regulatory approval for commercial planting of two GE eucalyptus trees. Suzano remains FSC certified. And Suzano is a member of GREAT TREES, Strauss’s GE research cooperative.
A relaxation of FSC’s ban on commercial use of GE trees would immediately open the path for Suzano to plant monocultures of its glyphosate-tolerant GE eucalyptus trees in Brazil. Regardless of FSC’s ban, Suzano is currently working on improving the varieties in preparation for commercial use.
Through the GREAT TREES cooperative, Strauss has close connections to Suzano and to SweTree, another FSC-certified company with GE tree field trials. Corteva Agrosciences, a major biotechnology, seed, and agrochemcial corporation, is an associate member of GREAT TREES.
A flyer for GREAT TREES states that,
“Our current research is focused on eucalypts, the most important and widely planted hardwood forest tree in the world. Our studies will focus on major innovations in gene transfer and gene editing, essential to make the benefits of genetic engineering applicable for industrial forestry. The results of GREAT TREES research can directly aid companies that are seeking sustainable, socially acceptable uses of transgenic or exotic tree species in plantations.”
In March 2023, FSC’s Board will meet to decide whether the “Genetic Engineering Learning Process” will advance to the next stage. Ahead of this meeting, FSC ran a consultation consisting of just five questions. One of the questions asked whether the participation framework of learning process will “contribute to the kind of learning FSC requires to make future decisions about their role in guiding research and development on GE trees?”
FSC’s appointment of Strauss to its panel of experts raises the serious concern that this so-called “learning process” is actually designed to lead FSC towards ending its current ban on the commercial planting of GE trees by FSC-certified companies.
The Campaign to STOP GE Trees has compiled a profile of Strauss, highlighting his lobbying for the GE trees industry, including his involvement in two petitions asking FSC and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) to overturn their bans on GE trees.
Strauss: “Nearly impossible” to contain GE trees
Strauss has a clear agenda to advance research into GE trees, and is clearly in favour of the development of GE trees for commercial use. In 2005, he co-authored a paper identifying government regulation as a barrier to this progress. The paper states that, “the costs of meeting regulatory requirements and market restrictions guided by regulatory criteria are substantial impediments to the commercialization of transgenic crops.”
In 2009, Strauss took on the Convention on Biological Diversity’s use of the precautionary approach to GE trees: “Of most immediate concern are the increasingly strict regulations that impede or preclude even field research, and thus the increased foreclosure of opportunities for commercial development.”
Yet Strauss admits that it is “nearly impossible” to contain GE trees in field tests. He suggests that breeding GE trees would need to either be subject to “drastic isolation measures” or “fully exempt from regulation”:
“During the period of research and breeding prior to a decision to commercialize, every pollen grain, seed, and vegetative propagule must be contained and killed, something that is nearly impossible to do with the large size, delayed reproduction, and extensive potential for gene dispersal from pollen, and sometimes also seed, in forest trees during breeding trials. Such releases and admixtures in agricultural crops have in the past led to billions of dollars in legal penalties and fines, so is a very serious risk. Exploring the benefit of a gene edited [genetically engineered] tree in a normal breeding program, unless it is fully exempt from regulation, is effectively impossible, unless drastic isolation measures are taken.”
Strauss co-authored a 2010 paper that argues that adopting “Low Level Presence” policies that allow contamination levels from some GE perennial crops could reduce the legal risks and costs of field testing. The paper also argues that there could be “noncontained” field research for some GE grasses and trees.
Strauss’s campaign to end FSC’s ban on commercial use of GE trees
In a 2022 paper Stauss and his co-authors even wrote that the FSC “learning process” is a “possibly encouraging sign”:
“Another barrier is the restrictions imposed by forestry certification programs . . . A possibly encouraging sign is the creation of a “learning process” for FSC certified companies to experiment with genetically engineered or edited trees outside of certified areas, and where the trees are not used in products, certified or not. However, the program is highly controversial within FSC, thus its very existence and the parameters of its operation — and therefore its ultimate impact on the use of GE trees in certified forests [sic] — is completely unknown.”
In 2018, Strauss led the creation of a petition asking FSC and PEFC to overturn their bans on GE trees. The petition states, “we believe that genetically engineered trees have a place in certified forests”. The petition was launched by the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-biotechnology public relations campaign. In November 2022, the Alliance dropped the “Cornell” from its name. It is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and works to promote GMOs, especially in Africa.
In a 2019 presentation to scientists in China, Strauss stated that the petition to FSC is “one part of larger efforts by companies to gain access to biotech while under certification”.
And in an April 2021 presentation, he wrote, “The petition has helped to prompt FSC to take another look . . . ”. Nevertheless he remained critical that FSC was not moving fast enough in the direction of certifying GE trees.
They have become the ‘Forest Synthesis Council’. Of course their collections of clonal, sterile trees is not a forest, but today they only hear the sound of cash registers not crickets.