GMO grass is creeping across Oregon
Missteps by agribusiness giants allowed the invasion. Now they're off the hook for cleanup.
In the failing light of an unusually warm January day, Jerry Erstrom and I race along a dirt track behind Rod Frahm’s white pickup. Here, near Ontario, Oregon, a stone’s throw from the Idaho border, Frahm grows onions, squash and corn. But today, he wants to show us something he’s growing against his will: a genetically engineered turfgrass designed for golf courses.
Frahm slams on the brakes next to a dry irrigation ditch, jumps out and yanks up a clump, winter-brown but laced with new green shoots. Beneath his gray fedora, his dark eyes glint with anger as he holds out the scraggly specimen. “I have it in a lot of my ditches,” he says.
Just to be sure, Erstrom produces a plastic vial the size and shape of a .22 caliber cartridge. He stuffs a few blades into it, adds water, and mashes the mixture with a wooden rod, like a bartender muddling mint. Then he inserts a plastic strip and hands it to me. It’s like a pregnancy test: One line confirms it’s working, while the other detects a gene that unmasks the intruder.
We wait, batting away gnats and breathing in the aroma of onions, whose colorful skins litter the county roads. Then the results appear: This is indeed the variety of creeping bentgrass that agribusiness giants Scotts Miracle-Gro and Monsanto engineered to tolerate the herbicide Roundup.
The grass arrived here uninvited, after crossing the Snake River from old seed fields in Idaho. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which vets most new genetically engineered products, had not approved the plant’s release. But in 2010, landowners discovered it growing in great mats throughout the irrigation system that stretches like a spider web across Malheur County.
Creeping bentgrass has not created a catastrophe, as some anti-GMO groups warned it would. But it thrives in canals and ditches, where it collects sediment and impedes water flow, and it has proved difficult to control. That makes it a headache for Frahm and other growers — like the heavy snows that crushed their onion sheds last year, and the host of other weeds they already battle.
No one believes the bentgrass can be fully eradicated, either. And as long as it’s around, some fear it could contaminate non-GMO crops and invade natural areas. “It just scares the bejeezus out of me,” says Erstrom, a retired Bureau of Land Management natural resource specialist who chairs the Malheur County Weed Advisory Board.
So far, Scotts has led the battle to rein in its escapee, with some recent success. But in a series of decisions over the last several years, the USDA has relieved Scotts of future responsibility in return for the company’s promise not to market the grass. Scotts has pledged not to turn its back on the problem, but after this summer, it no longer has to bankroll cleanup efforts. Now, Erstrom and others say there are no legal safeguards to keep the task — with its reported $250,000 annual price tag — from becoming the burden of local growers and the state and county governments.
To critics, the case laid bare glaring weaknesses in the country’s oversight of genetically engineered, or GE, crops. While biotechnology’s defenders say the process is already overly rigorous, others have long argued that regulations, which haven’t changed significantly since 1987, don’t do enough to protect agriculture and the environment. Neither the USDA nor any government agency must weigh the full social, economic and ecological impacts of GE products, says Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University. “There’s really no place that’s looking at this broadly from a risk-benefit perspective.”
In Malheur County, landowners must reckon with the consequences. Erstrom says the USDA’s handling of bentgrass has forced a polarized community to grapple with a problem it didn’t create. “They took it out of Scotts’ hands and dumped it into the laps of the irrigation district and the farmers.”
Photo from Flickr.