GMO grass that ‘escaped’ Treasure Valley plot defies eradication

Another day dawns in Western Oregon’s Linn County, grass seed capital of the world. Some players in the industry fear a genetically modified grass on the loose in Oregon could hurt their business.
Another day dawns in Western Oregon’s Linn County, grass seed capital of the world. Some players in the industry fear a genetically modified grass on the loose in Oregon could hurt their business. The Oregonian/OregonLive

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 and Idahoans.

The federal government is letting that happen by relinquishing its oversight, even as an unlikely coalition of farmers, seed dealers, environmentalists, scientists and regulators cries foul.

The altered grass escaped from test beds in Parma and has taken root in nearby areas of Idaho and Oregon. Oregon’s Willamette Valley is the self-professed grass seed capital of the world with a billion-dollar-a-year industry at stake. The grass has proved hard to kill because it has been modified to be resistant to Roundup, the ubiquitous, all-purpose herbicide.

The situation is particularly tense in Eastern Oregon’s Malheur County, where Scotts’ altered grass started growing after somehow jumping the Snake River from the test beds in Parma.

“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, deregulated the seed on Jan. 18, saying it “is unlikely to pose a plant pest risk to agricultural crops or other plants in the U.S.”

Some people find deregulation alarming. The Oregon and Idaho departments of agriculture opposed it. So did U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which predicted commercialization of the grass could drive endangered species to extinction.

“I’m disappointed,” said Scott Harer, president of the Oregon Seed Council. “If that weed gets to the valley, that’s a real problem.”

“We don’t understand the ecological or the economic impact of this,” said Katy Coba, former director of the Oregon Agriculture Department. “We need to figure out the extent of the contamination.”

The Idaho testing took place from 2002 to 2004 on two fields near Parma totaling 83 acres and one 40-acre field near Parma that was destroyed before seed was produced. All the Idaho plots were discontinued in 2006 and their plants destroyed.

But surveys have found the GMO grass along irrigation and drainage ditches within a mile of the Canyon County sites. A government map shows it dispersed in a roughly 3-mile-long-by-3-mile-wide area just west of U.S. 20.

Some growers and dealers fear it’s only a matter of time before the altered seed reaches the Willamette Valley.

“That would be a catastrophic event for Oregon’s grass seed industry,” said Don Herb, a Linn County seed dealer. “We don’t need Scotts or others to put our industry at risk.”

Many international buyers will not buy genetically modified products, citing potential safety concerns. Some countries ban them outright. It was just three years ago that some Asian buyers suspended purchases of Northwest wheat after traces of genetically modified strains were detected.

A new and improved grass

Genetic modification dates back to the 1970s and really took hold in agriculture in the 1990s and 2000s. The ability to alter a plant’s genes offered the promise of species that are more productive, more resistant to disease, even immune to herbicides.

Scotts hoped gene modification would help it revolutionize the front yard. It invested $100 million to develop a better, more sustainable grass in the 1990s and 2000s largely through the new technology. In partnership with Monsanto, it created a type of creeping bentgrass unaffected by Roundup.

The initial target market was the golf course industry, King said. Creeping bentgrass is commonly used on greens and tees because it can survive being mowed down practically to the dirt.

It was incredibly attractive to the golf industry. Creeping bentgrass is probably as good a playing surface as you’ll ever find in the northern U.S. But it’s also really subject to infestation from other grasses.

Jim King, spokesman for Scotts

The allure of the new grass was simple: Golf course greens keepers could use a single herbicide — Roundup — to kill everything but the desired bentgrass.

Scotts launched field trials throughout the country.

The “escape”

On two occasions in August 2003, hot afternoon winds whipped through test fields north of Madras, scattering the modified seed for miles, including into the Crooked River National Grassland in north-central Oregon. Signs of the altered grass were found 13 miles away from the test fields, according to federal documents.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for Scotts. It had sought the blessing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture just the year before to sell the altered seed commercially.

It was an extraordinary request. Scotts’ grass was one of the first genetically modified perennials. Unlike annual food crops, perennials typically survive the cold months and can expand via seeds and the shoots they send out. The tiny grass seed is easily propelled by wind, water and hungry birds.

In 2007, the agriculture department fined Scotts $500,000 for allowing the escape and held Scotts responsible for controlling and eradicating the grass.

Then came news the grass had spread further.

In 2010, significant patches of altered grass were found along irrigation canals in Malheur County. The seed somehow jumped the Snake River from Parma and established itself intermittently from the tiny town of Adrian, north to Ontario and beyond to the Malheur River’s junction with the Snake, a total distance of nearly 30 miles.

The runaways weren’t Scotts’ only problem. U.S. Fish and Wildlife determined that commercialization of the modified grass could actually “jeopardize the continued existence” of two endangered plant species in western Oregon and would “adversely modify” critical habitat of Fender’s Blue Butterfly, found only in the Willamette Valley.

There were other unexpected developments. Scientists from Oregon State University and the Environmental Protection Agency found that the modified grass had crossed with feral grasses, passing along its Roundup resistance.

Controversial deal

As chair of the Malheur County Weed Board, Jerry Erstrom has become an outspoken player at the center of the Scotts controversy. The Vale native is a retired Bureau of Land Management employee and still grows hay.

Erstrom says he learned in February 2016 that Scotts had reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Agriculture six months earlier. Scotts was abandoning its plan to commercialize its altered grass. The waning popularity of golf had convinced Scotts that its grass was no longer a viable product, King said.

Erstrom had reason to worry. He sells hay largely to foreign buyers, who won’t hesitate to find another supplier if there’s any sign of genetically modified material. But what really got Erstrom riled was this $2.8 billion-a-year corporation planning to phase out its lead role in the effort to eradicate the grass.

“Instead, they want the good people of Malheur County to clean up their mess,” he said.

That will not come cheap. In a 2014 filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Scotts “recognized $2.0 million in additional ongoing monitoring and remediation expense for our turfgrass biotechnology program.” King said the company has been spending about $250,000 a year to control the grass.

King contends Scotts has agreed to remain involved in the cleanup for 10 years. But for the latter seven years, Scotts would be required only to operate an informational website on how to deal with its grass.

There were other curious developments. Though it was abandoning efforts to commercialize the grass, Scotts still wants it deregulated. And the federal agency, which had refused for 14 years to sign off the new grass, suddenly seemed eager to do so.

Dr. Michael Firko, deputy director of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a department within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Scotts’s decision not to bring the grass to market changed the equation.

“Based on the 2002 petition, we were anticipating hundreds of thousands of acres of (the altered grass) on golf courses across the country,” he said.

Firko defended the agency’s handling of the case. “I think we did a great job getting the commitments we did from the company,” he said.

Dan Anderson, a Malheur County rancher and official with the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the spread of the grass has been blown out of proportion by critics. “If you take every bentgrass in the county, you could put it on one quarter-acre,” he said.

But Lori Ann Burd, director of the environmental health program at the , an environmental group, is skeptical that Scotts actually will end its effort to sell the new grass. Even if it does, Scotts’ patent on the technology expires in 2023, potentially paving the way for someone else to pick up the effort.

The contamination factor

Until Scotts’ modified grass, Oregon’s grass seed industry was a GMO-free zone, a great comfort to the many European and Asian customers who refused to buy genetically altered products. At the same time, Scotts was an important customer and partner for many of the state’s 1,500 growers.

Many international buyers will not buy genetically modified products, citing potential safety concerns. Some countries ban them outright. It was just three years ago that some Asian buyers suspended purchases of Northwest wheat after traces of genetically modified strains were detected.

Mike Weber, of Central Oregon Seeds in Madras, said local growers jumped at the chance to try growing the new grass. Scotts was and is a long-time customer and trusted partner.

“The growers were enthused,” Weber said. “Maybe we rushed into things.”

If you asked us now whether we would ever want to get involved again in production of a GMO seed crop? The answer would be no. No way.

Mike Weber, Central Oregon Seeds

Carol Mallory-Smith is a weed scientist at Oregon State University who has been monitoring the new grass since its initial plantings. It was she who first confirmed the altered grass had established in Malheur County.

As the issue began to heat up last year, Mallory-Smith returned to Jefferson and Malheur counties to see for herself. She found the altered grass in both counties in just hours. That reinforced her view that while Scotts has reduced the number of plants, they are still present in significant volume.

She followed up with a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture urging the agency not deregulate the grass, one of hundreds to do so.

“I always had the opinion that if they released it they would not be able to contain it,” she said.

The Idaho Statesman contributed.