EnglishFrenchGermanItalianPortugueseRussianSpanish

Profile of Forest Stewardship Council Expert Panel Member Steven Strauss

July 2022

Steven Strauss, appointed to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) internal expert panel on genetic engineering (GE), has spent twenty years lobbying against the FSC’s prohibition on 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.” – Strauss et al, 2009[1]

“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.“ – Steven Strauss et al, 2019[2]

Summary: Professor Steven Strauss is one of eight members of an “independent panel of experts”[3] appointed in June/July 2022 by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to develop a framework of safeguards that will be used by FSC to oversee field testing of genetically engineered (GE) trees in what FSC is calling its “learning process on genetic engineering.” The panel is charged with providing FSC with “trusted, unbiased” information about environmental risks and developing a framework of “safeguards” that the FSC can put in place in order to oversee field testing. However, Prof. Strauss is a GE tree researcher who has spent twenty years actively lobbying FSC and other certification bodies to remove their prohibitions on GE trees. He has also lobbied against the precautionary approach at the CBD and for weaker national regulation of GE trees.

**

Steven Strauss, PhD, is a professor of forest biotechnology in the United States at Oregon State University in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. Prof. Strauss is also Director of a university-public agency-industry consortium previously called the Tree Genomics and Biosafety Research Cooperative, now called the GREAT TREES Cooperative.[4] The current members of GREAT TREES are the major Brazil-based pulp and paper company Suzano/FuturaGene; the company Klabin, which is the biggest paper producer and exporter in Brazil; timber companies SAPPI, Arauco (North America), and SweTree (Sweden); and the University of Pretoria Forest Molecular Biology Program in South Africa. The major biotechnology, seed and agrochemical company Corteva Agrosciences is also an Associate Member.[5] The group’s current genetic engineering research is centred on eucalyptus: “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 [emphasis added].”[6]

The Forest Stewardship Council has begun phase one of a “genetic engineering learning process” that will, if FSC members agree at the General Assembly in October, involve the FSC overseeing field tests of GE trees. The FSC describes the role of its new panel of experts as providing trusted and unbiased information: “The learning process has the aim of learning within FSC about GE in forestry under conditions we have set ourselves, with targets we have set ourselves and experts providing trusted, unbiased, and accurate information on safeguards and conditions. By designing and overseeing our own learning process, we can be assured to have access to all information, and we can set our own conditions [emphasis added].[7]

However, panel member Prof. Strauss argues that the prohibition of GE trees in FSC certification is a significant obstacle to research and commercial development,[8] and he has made these arguments since 2001 in numerous scientific publications,[9] in media articles, at the bi-annual Tree Biotechnology Conferences of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) and via a public campaign that has included two petitions addressed directly to the FSC.

In 2022, Prof. Strauss identified “non-GMO certification” as a “problem constraining progress” in a presentation that reviews his efforts that “helped to initiate reconsideration of GMO policy by FSC.”[10]

In 2018, Prof. Strauss led the creation of the first of two petitions asking FSC and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) to overturn their bans on GE trees. The 2018/2019 petition states, “we believe that genetically engineered trees have a place in certified forests.”[11] This petition was launched by the Cornell Alliance for Science,[12] which is the pro-biotechnology public relations campaign funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.[13]

The Frequently Asked Questions that accompany the petition (housed on the Oregon State University’s website) include the statement, “There is simply no credible evidence that biotech trees are harmful to people, animals, or ecosystems.” [14] This is a dangerous blanket dismissal of important environmental and social concerns and a broad assumption about the safety of genetic engineering. It ignores existing scientific research showing, for example, the negative impacts of insect resistant (Bt) traits on non-target insects[15] and the environmental and human health of impacts of using glyphosate,[16] as proposed with the approved glyphosate-tolerant GE eucalyptus tree in Brazil. It also glosses over the issue of inevitable contamination from GE trees. It further ignores the fact that there have been no long-term risk assessments on GE trees, and that such assessments may not, in fact, be possible.[17]

In 2019, in his presentation slides to scientists in China, Prof. Strauss wrote that the petition to FSC is “one part of larger efforts by companies to gain access to biotech while under certification [emphasis added].”[18]

In an April 2021 presentation, he wrote, “The petition has helped to prompt FSC to take another look, but…currently under consideration is only the allowance of “associated” use of GMOs (not on certified lands, but by certified companies). This after decades of scientific dissent and company lobbying for change [emphasis added].”[19]

A second petition directed at FSC from August 2021, titled “Allow the use of GE technology in forest trees,” summarized FSC’s learning process concept: “The FSC has invited public sector and academic researchers to share their expert opinions on existing safeguards and control mechanisms for the application of GE in forestry, in order to guide the FSC in deciding whether it should be engaged in a trial project for associated use of GM forestry outside of FSC certification. This would include the development of conditions and safeguards that could be adopted when FSC associates seek to commercially deploy GM trees outside certified forests and products [emphasis added].” [20]

Prof. Strass has also actively lobbied governments at meetings of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), as part of the international biotechnology lobby group called Public Research and Regulation Initiative,[21] for weaker regulation of genetic engineering.[22] In 2009, he also co-wrote a commentary in the journal Nature, in response to the CBD decision reaffirming the need to take a precautionary approach on GE trees,[23] which he described as “broad restrictions on research and development.”[24] In 2022, he referred to the “special treatment of GE in the CBD, and its many costly, ambiguous, and poorly founded biological provisions, most notably for liability and redress.[25]

Prof. Strauss has also argued for weaker national regulation of GE. A 2005 paper co-authored by Prof. Strauss stated that, “the costs of meeting regulatory requirements and market restrictions guided by regulatory criteria are substantial impediments to the commercialization of transgenic crops.”[26]

Most recently, Prof. Strauss co-authored a paper that argued that adopting “Low Level Presence” policies[27] that accept contamination levels from some GE perennial crops could reduce the legal risks and costs of field testing, and suggested that that there could be “noncontained” field research for some GE grasses and trees.[28]

The Forest Stewardship Council’s expert panel members (initially five and now eight) are:[29]

  • Rachel Ankeny, Professor, School of Humanities, The University of Adelaide, Australia
  • Andrew Blackwell, BNP Paribas; ARCADIS Consultants, Toronto, Canada
  • Jason Delborne, Professor of Science, Policy, and Society, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, Genetic Engineering and Society Center, North Carolina State University, USA
  • Desiree Elizondo, Director at CABAL, consultancy for capacity development for communities and Indigenous Peoples, Nicaragua / Costa Rica
  • Keith Robert Hayes, CSIRO, Team leader and senior research scientist, Australia
  • Aditi Mankad, CSIRO, Team Leader, Biosecurity & Biotechnology, Australia
  • Juan Ramon Miguelez, Senior Principal Consultant, 3Sustainability – Environment, Society, and Governance, Spain
  • Steven Strauss, Professor, Oregon State University, USA

REFERENCES:

[1] Strauss, Steve, et al. 2009. Strangled at birth? Forest biotech and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Nature Biotechnology 27(6):219-527. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/251875487_Strangled_at_birth_Forest_biotech_and_the_Convention_on_Biological_Diversity.

[2] Strauss SH, Boerjan W, Chiang V, Costanza A, Coleman H, Davis JM, Lu MZ, Mansfield SD, Merkle S, Myburg A, Nilsson O, Pilate G, Powell W, Seguin A, Valenzuela S. Certification for gene-edited forests. Science. 2019 Aug 23;365(6455):767-768. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aay6165

[3] Forest Stewardship Council. 2022. FSC Genetic Engineering Learning Process outside of FSC-certified Area. https://fsc.org/en/media/fscge-learning-processappointment-of-poeengpdf

[4] Oregon State University. Great Trees Cooperative. https://people.forestry.oregonstate.edu/steve-strauss/great-trees-cooperative

[5] Oregon State University. Great Trees Cooperative. https://people.forestry.oregonstate.edu/steve-strauss/great-trees-cooperative.

[6] Oregon State University. Great Trees: Genetic Research on Engineering + Advanced Transformation of Trees. https://people.forestry.oregonstate.edu/steve-strauss/sites/people.forestry.oregonstate.edu.steve-strauss/files/GREAT%20TREES%20flyer%202018.pdf

[7] Forest Stewardship Council. Genetic Engineering Learning Process FAQs: Why does FSC want to do a learning process of its own instead of relying on already existing research projects? https://fsc.org/en/sustainable-intensification/fsc-genetic-engineering-learning-process

[8] Strauss, Steve, Mikaela Schmitt, and Roger Sedjo. 2009. Forest Scientist Views of Regulatory Obstacles to Research and Development of Transgenic Forest Biotechnology. Journal of Forestry –Washington 107(7): 350-357. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/251875526_Forest_Scientist_Views_of_Regulatory_Obstacles_to_Research_and_Development_of_Transgenic_Forest_Biotechnology

[9] Strauss, Steve, M.M. Campbell, S.N. Pryor, P. Coventry and J. Burley. 2001. Plantation Certification and Genetic Engineering: FSC’s Ban on Research Is Counterproductive. Journal of Forestry 99(12): 4-70. https://doi.org/10.1093/jof/99.12.4 and Strauss, Steven H., et al. 2001. Certification of Genetically Modified Forest Plantations. The International Forestry Review 3(2): 87-104. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42609365.

[10] Strauss, Steve. 2022. What are we in Recombinant Forest Biotech? Some Lessons about Science & Society in a Fractious and Changing World. Presented online at IUFRO Tree Biotechnology International Conference, Harbin, China. https://people.forestry.oregonstate.edu/steve-strauss/sites/people.forestry.oregonstate.edu.steve-strauss/files/Strauss_IUFRO_%20July2022.pdf

[11] Alliance for Science. 2018. Support modern forest biotechnology research. Go Petition. https://www.gopetition.com/petitions/petition-in-support-of-modern-forest-biotechnology.html

[12] Alliance for Science. 2018. Support modern forest biotechnology research. Go Petition. https://www.gopetition.com/petitions/petition-in-support-of-modern-forest-biotechnology.html

[13] Malkan, Stacy. 2020. Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR Campaign for the Agrichemical Industry. US Right to Know. https://usrtk.org/our-investigations/cornell-alliance-for-science-is-campaign-for-agrichemical-industry/

[14] Oregon State University. Petition in Support of Forest Biotechnology Research. FAQ. https://biotechtrees.forestry.oregonstate.edu/faq

[15] Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). 2015. Are GM Crops Better for the Environment? GMO Inquiry. www.gmoinquiry.ca/environment

[16] See, for example, Bøhn T, Millstone E. 2019. The Introduction of Thousands of Tonnes of Glyphosate in the food Chain—An Evaluation of Glyphosate Tolerant Soybeans. Foods 8(12):669. https://www.mdpi.com/2304-8158/8/12/669. Van Bruggen AHC, He MM, Shin K, Mai V, Jeong KC, Finckh MR, Morris JG Jr. Environmental and health effects of the herbicide glyphosate. Sci Total Environ. 2018 Mar;616-617:255-268. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048969717330279 ; Carey Gillam. 2019. Weedkiller ‘raises risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma by 41%’, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/feb/14/weed-killing-products-increase-cancer-risk-of-cancer?CMP=share_btn_fb

[17] EcoNexus, CBAN, Stop GE Trees Campaign, Ecoropa, Global Justice Ecology Project, Global Forest Coalition, World Rainforest Movement. 2008. Potential Ecological and Social Impacts of Genetically Engineered Trees. 2008. Commentary on CBD/SBSTTA/INF/6 Paper on Potential Impacts of GE Trees. Prepared for Convention on Biological Diversity SBSTTA Meeting, Rome, Italy, 18-22 February.

[18] Strauss, Steven. 2019. Gene editing in forest trees: Policies and progress to enable innovation. Presentation to the 11th National Poplar Symposium, Hebei, China – 2019. https://people.forestry.oregonstate.edu/steve-strauss/sites/people.forestry.oregonstate.edu.steve-strauss/files/Strauss_China2019.pdf

[19] Strauss, Steven. 2021. Biological, regulatory, and market conditions affecting forest health improvement with recombinant biotechnology: Constraints of today, visions of a smart tomorrow. Presentation to Purdue University (Zoom). April. https://people.forestry.oregonstate.edu/steve-strauss/sites/people.forestry.oregonstate.edu.steve-strauss/files/Strauss_Purdue2021.pdf

[20] International Tree Biotechnology Community. 2021. Allow Use of GE Technology in Forest Trees. Go Petition. https://www.gopetition.com/petitions/allow-use-of-ge-technology-in-forest-trees.html

[21] Public Research and Regulation Initiative. https://prri.net/cbd-cops

[22] Corporate Europe Observatory. 2008. PRRI: Are these public researchers? Briefing for COP/MOP Bohn. https://corporateeurope.org/en/food-and-agriculture/2008/06/prri-are-these-public-researchers

[23] Convention on Biological Diversity. 2008. COP 9 Decision IX/5: Forest Biodiversity. https://www.cbd.int/decision/cop/?id=11648

[24] Strauss, Steven, et al. 2009. Strangled at birth? Forest biotech and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Nature Biotechnology 27(6):219-527. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/251875487_Strangled_at_birth_Forest_biotech_and_the_Convention_on_Biological_Diversity

[25] Strauss, Steven, Drew L. Kershen, Joe H. Bouton, Thomas P. Redick, Huimin Tan, Roger A. Sedjo. 2010. Far-reaching Deleterious Impacts of Regulations on Research and Environmental Studies of Recombinant DNA-modified Perennial Biofuel Crops in the United States, BioScience 60(9: 729–741. https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2010.60.9.10

[26] Bradford, K., Van Deynze, A., Gutterson, N. et al. 2005. Regulating transgenic crops sensibly: lessons from plant breeding, biotechnology and genomics. Nature Biotechnol 23, 439–444. https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt1084.

[27] For background on Low Level Presence, see: Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). www.cban.ca/llp.

[28] Steven H. Strauss, Drew L. Kershen, Joe H. Bouton, Thomas P. Redick, Huimin Tan, Roger A. Sedjo. 2010. Far-reaching Deleterious Impacts of Regulations on Research and Environmental Studies of Recombinant DNA-modified Perennial Biofuel Crops in the United States, BioScience 60(9): 729–741. https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2010.60.9.10.[29] Forest Stewardship Council. 2022. FSC genetic engineering learning process outside of FSC-certified area: Final appointments to the independent panel of experts. July 8. https://fsc.org/en/newsfeed/fsc-genetic-engineering-learning-process-outside-of-fsc-certified-area-0

Join Our Newsletter

Share This