January 12, 2017
Genetically engineered creeping bentgrass escapes into wild
It wasn’t like a daring prison break from Alcatraz that everyone said was impossible.
No watch tower lights went blaring. No barking guard dogs and armed patrols sent scrambling into the brush to forcefully recover the recalcitrant escapees.
No, this was an entirely different kind of escape —one though, that many said could actually happen.
The basic outline of the story:
The giant grass seed manufacturer, Scotts Miracle-Gro began developing (with Monsanto) a genetically modified grass seed that would be impervious to exposure from RoundUp, a powerful herbicide used to control weeds.
The modified grass was called Creeping Bentgrass, ideally suited for golf course greens, smooth, tough and easily cut to a short surface.
Tests began in the early 2000’s throughout the country on small test plots under USDA federal regulation meaning that it was not to be commercially grown and (supposedly) isolated so as not to spread to other areas.
Test sites for this altered grass were introduced in 2 Oregon counties, Jefferson, and Malheur near the border with Idaho. According to the Oregonian, “On two occasions in August 2003, hot afternoon winds whipped through the fields north of Madras, scattering the modified seed seed for miles, including into the Crooked River National Grasslands. Signs of the altered grass were found 13 miles away from the test fields, according to federal documents.”
“In 2010, significant patches of altered grass were found along irrigation canals in Malheur County.”
And, as the Creeping Bentgrass was found in more areas, Scotts, USDA, and state agencies in Idaho and Oregon have all been unable to contain the problem. Even more worrisome, Oregon State University (OSU) and EPA scientists discovered evidence that the modified grass was able to exchange their roundup resistant genes with surrounding feral grass so the problem was literally spreading. And, because these are perennial grass seeds, they keep coming back each year.
The big fear is multi-fold as the problem festers and grows for going on 14 years.
- There is concern over environmental contamination with nonGMO crops that may result in loss of continued access to international markets. Other countries prize Oregon grass seed for being GMO free. If there’s GMO contamination in the grass seed, those markets will be lost to local growers. In Jefferson country, local growers have be forced to add costly processes to their operations to identify and cull GMO contaminated seeds from their lot.
- The USDA is poised to suddenly deregulate this GE grass seed, in effect, allowing an unsolved contamination problem to be made into a much wider problem. Even though the current manufacturer (Scotts Miracle-Gro) has now announced it will not seek commercial approval to grow this product, other manufacturers may pick up the product after their patents expire in 2023 or Scotts’ may change their mind.
- There are two related plant species on the endangered list and a local butterfly whose only known habitat resides in the Willamette Valley. According to local Fish and Wildlife scientists, those would be threatened by commercialization of Creeping Bentgrass if the USDA deregulates Creeping Bentgrass and a manufacturer decides to commercialize it at some future time.
This is likely an ongoing story that won’t simply go away, no matter how the USDA finally rules on the regulation matter and whether or not Scotts’ is allowed to eventually walk way. It’s also a cautionary tale that many opponents of agricultural biotechnology have worried over for years. We now have the capacity to create novel organisms and with even newer technologies like nanotechnology and synthetic biology, the potential for greater unintended consequences grows.
Do we have the wisdom and the temerity to tread cautiously into the realms not even the finest scientific minds fully understand? How will these altered organisms respond in the environment? What effect over time will they have on other species? If a problem is discovered, how readily can it be contained? Once introduced, if necessary, will it be possible to remove them from the environment?
Read the original article written by Jeff Manning of the Oregonian: GMO grass that ‘escaped’ defies eradication, divides grass seed industry
For more on Cooking Up a Story, watch this related video about a local organic seed breeder and his fight over the introduction of GMO sugar beets in the Willamette Valley (see below).