Pages tagged "Malheur County"
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.
EPA has approved a special local need label for an herbicide that is effective in controlling a genetically engineered creeping bentgrass that has taken root in Malheur and Jefferson counties in Oregon after escaping field trials in 2003.
The label is approved for only those counties.
The bentgrass was genetically engineered by Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. and Monsanto Corp. to resist applications of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer, which makes it hard to kill.
The special label will allow growers, irrigation districts and others to spot spray glufosinate over water during the growing season.
Glufosinate has proven the most effective herbicide for controlling the bentgrass but it previously could only be used over waterways such as canals during a short period at the beginning and end of the growing season.
“This is a huge tool in our tool box,” said Dan Andersen, co-chairman of a working group of farmers, irrigation district representatives and others that was developed in Malheur County to coordinate with Scott’s in its continuing efforts to control or eradicate the grass.
Some farmers worry the bentgrass could clog irrigation ditches and affect shipments of crops to nations that don’t accept traces of genetically modified organisms.
The bentgrass has proven difficult to control near canals and irrigation ditches because of the previous lack of an herbicide approved for use over water.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Federal Approval of Ge Grass Raises Concerns About Contamination in Oregon's Billion-Dollar Grass Seed Industry
A decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deregulate a genetically modified grass seed has raised concerns about contamination in Oregon’s billion-dollar grass seed industry.
Genetically modified creeping bentgrass was created by Scotts Miracle-Gro as a product for golf courses. But the grass escaped from its test plots, and has continued to spread across Southeast and Central Oregon – despite eradication efforts.
The USDA published its final decision on Wednesday, approving a request from Scotts to deregulate the company’s bentgrass seed after determining that the plant is “unlikely to pose a plant pest risk.”
Jerry Erstrom chairs the weed board in Malheur County, where the grass has taken root after crossing the Snake River from Idaho. He’s seen firsthand how fast the grass can spread and how hard it is to wipe out because it’s resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in most herbicides.
“There are only one or two herbicides labeled to be used upon it,” he said. “The caveat is they can only be used in dry areas. Anything on a shoreline, in wetlands or along riparian, there’s nothing that can remove it. The only way is by hand or shovel.”
Erstrom expects the grass will prevent him from exporting the hay he grows because overseas buyers shun genetically modified plants, and he’s worried about how much damage it could do if it spreads to the grass seed industry in the Willamette Valley.
“Not only economically but environmentally – the devastation it can cause – people don’t appreciate how bad it can be,” he said. “If this should happen to get across into the Willamette Valley I think it would at least destroy the export market for the grass growers there.”
The Oregonian/OregonLive | January 8th, 2017
After more than a decade of unsuccessful efforts to eradicate the genetically modified grass it created and allowed to escape, lawn and garden giant Scotts Miracle-Gro now wants to step back and shift the burden to Oregonians.
The federal government is poised to allow that to happen by relinquishing its oversight, even as an unlikely coalition of farmers, seed dealers, environmentalists, scientists and regulators cry foul.
The altered grass has taken root in Oregon, of all places, the self-professed grass seed capital of the world with a billion-dollar-a-year industry at stake. The grass has proven hard to kill because it's been modified to be resistant to Roundup, the ubiquitous, all-purpose herbicide.
The situation is particularly tense in Malheur County, where Scotts' altered grass has taken root after somehow jumping the Snake River from test beds in Idaho.
"Imagine I had a big, sloppy, nasty Rottweiler, and you lived next door in your perfectly manicured house," said Bill Buhrig, an Oregon State University extension agent in Malheur County. "Then I dump the dog in your backyard, I take off and now it's your problem."
The battle pits farmer against farmer, regulator against regulator, seller against buyer. Scotts spokesman Jim King insists the company has done its part and significantly reduced the modified grass's territory. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which for 14 years had refused to deregulate the controversial grass on environmental concerns, suddenly reversed course last fall and signaled it could grant the company's request as early as this week.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Eastern Oregon farmer Jerry Erstrom scouts for patches of genetically engineered creeping bentgrass on the banks of an irrigation ditch June 14.
It doesn’t take him long to find one. And then another, and another.
The bentgrass was genetically engineered to withstand applications of glyphosate herbicide, which makes it difficult to kill.
Farmers such as Erstrom worry it will ultimately take over the countryside, clog irrigation ditches and affect shipments of crops to nations that don’t accept traces of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
“I’ve been doing weeds for 25 years and I promise you in five years this (county) will be inundated with it,” said Erstrom, chairman of the Malheur County Weed Board.
The bentgrass was meant for golf courses. Instead, after escaping from field trials 13 years ago, it has taken root in Malheur and Jefferson counties and ignited a debate about who should be responsible for controlling it in the future.
Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., which was developing the grass for use mainly on golf course greens, said it is committed to collaboratively working with growers and irrigation districts to control and eradicate the grass where possible.
But some farmers believe a 10-year agreement Scotts recently reached with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will allow the company in a few years to essentially walk away from any responsibility for controlling the plant.
“I think Scotts should be liable for what they did but they are pretty much walking away from it,” said Malheur County farmer Rod Frahm. “Personally, I think since they created the problem, they should take care of it.”
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.