Sean Ellis/Capital Press
ONTARIO, Ore. — Environmental groups blasted USDA’s Jan. 17 decision to deregulate a genetically engineered creeping bentgrass that has taken root in two Oregon counties.
In a joint news release, the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety sharply criticized USDA’s decision to deregulate the grass, which was genetically modified to resist applications of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto Corp.’s Roundup weed killer.
Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. and Monsanto developed the grass for use mainly on golf courses.
Since it escaped field trials in 2003, it has taken root in Malheur and Jefferson counties in Oregon, as well as part of Canyon County in Idaho, and Scotts has been tasked by USDA with controlling it and eradicating it where possible.
The CBS and CFS news release said that in approving deregulation, USDA relinquishes any authority it had over the grass, “leaving local landowners and the state of Oregon to wrestle with the problem.”
Lori Ann Burd, director of CBD’s environmental health program, said USDA “has left us with no choice but to explore our legal options to return the burden of controlling this weedy grass back to the shoulders of the corporate profiteers who brought it into the world.”
A final environmental impact statement released by USDA Dec. 7 recommended deregulation of the genetically engineered creeping bentgrass because it “is unlikely to pose a plant pest risk....”
Sid Abel, assistant deputy director of USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services, said deregulation does not affect a 10-year memorandum of understanding and memorandum of agreement USDA reached with Scotts in September 2015.
The agreement requires the company in 2017 and 2018 to provide technical assistance to affected farmers and irrigation districts and provide incentives for the adoption of best management practices to control the grass.
After that, the company will pull back a little but still continue to analyze the situation, educate growers and provide technical assistance.
As part of the agreement, Scotts and Monsanto agreed not to commercialize or further propagate the plant in the future.
“The MOU and MOA remain in place,” Abel said. “Deregulation does not affect those agreements at all.”
Some farmers and water managers in the affected counties worry that because the bentgrass is resistant to glyphosate and difficult to kill, it could clog irrigation ditches and affect shipments of hay and other crops to nations that don’t accept traces of genetically modified organisms.
“I think it’s one of the most potentially devastating things that could ever happen to Oregon,” said East Oregon farmer Jerry Erstrom, chairman of the Malheur County Weed Board.
Scotts may well honor the terms of the MOA, he said.
“But the bottom line is, there is no (USDA) enforcement authority now, to my knowledge,” he said.
Scotts officials did not immediately return phone calls for this story but company officials have told Capital Press that Scotts will not walk away from its responsibility to help control the grass.