Bentgrass eradication plan unveiled
Updated: Thursday, July 14, 2011 9:18 AM
Scotts will cooperate with landowners to kill the invasive biotech plant
By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. executives were surprised last fall to learn plant escapes from an Idaho field of transgenic bentgrass were found several miles away in irrigation canals south of Ontario, Ore.
Scotts fieldmen for several years had monitored the area between the regulated trial near Parma, Idaho, and the Snake River border between Idaho and Oregon. The fieldmen had never seen escapes near the river, said Paula Bodey, a vice president for The Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.
The genetically modified bentgrass plants, meanwhile, had been growing in Oregon for at least two years, said Carol Mallory-Smith, an Oregon State University weed scientist, who identified the plants as the Roundup resistant creeping bentgrass developed by Scotts.
"They were extremely healthy, very large, and had gone to seed," Mallory-Smith said.
Mallory-Smith said she found hundreds, if not thousands, of the genetically modified plants growing along the irrigation canals.
In a presentation June 8 before the Oregon State Board of Agriculture, Bodey unveiled Scotts' plan for eradicating the escapes.
The plan involves local landowner involvement, Bodey said, and a commitment by Scotts to work "as long as it takes" to eradicate the plants.
The company spent the winter getting agreements from landowners for the company to scout fields for the bentgrass plants. All have cooperated, Bodey said.
Scotts is using local pesticide applicators to spray the plants with two herbicides the Oregon Department of Agriculture has registered under emergency use permits. In cases where sprays can't be applied in a timely fashion, Scotts is burning off seed heads to prevent plants from going to seed.
As part of its outreach, the company is working with grower groups and has placed an ad in a local newspaper asking homeowners to be on the alert for the plants.
To date, the company has found "numerous" plants, Bodey said, along two main irrigation canals and their arteries in an area five miles wide and 15 miles long.
All the discoveries have been in the canals and in field borders abutting canals, Bodey said.
The company has not found escapes in production areas of fields where soil has been tilled, Bodey said.
Bodey's June 8 presentation was in response to a request by the Oregon Department of Agriculture to keep the agency informed of the company's eradication plan.
Scotts later contacted the department and asked to unveil its plan at the board meeting, said Katy Coba, director of the ODA.
"Clearly the intent of Scotts is to get on this and deal with it," Coba said.
Scotts in 2005 planted the transgenic creeping bentgrass in a field near Parma, Idaho, as part of the research involved in its application to deregulate the crop. It took out the field after harvest in 2006.
The company's application for deregulation, filed in 2003, is still pending with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Karen Walker, an official with APHIS who also spoke at the board meeting, couldn't say when the agency will decide whether to deregulate the crop.
Walker also couldn't say whether APHIS will issue Scotts a civil penalty for allowing the plants to escape from the Idaho trial site, but she did say the escapes "constitute violations of permits."
The USDA in 2007 slapped Scotts with a $500,000 fine for allowing genetically engineered bentgrass seed to escape from a Central Oregon field trial. The escapes occurred in 2003 when a strong wind blew seed several miles. The seed was in windrows waiting to be combined.
Scotts has yet to eradicate those escapes and scientists think efforts to eradicate the Eastern Oregon escapes also could take several years.
"It's been eight years in Madras and we still have plants there," Mallory-Smith said. "I don't expect it to be any different in Ontario."
Scotts is developing the Roundup resistant bentgrass for use on golf courses.
If the bentgrass is deregulated, Bodey said she believes the company can prevent further escapes.
The company, she said, has learned from its mistakes, and Scotts officials anticipate that future permits from APHIS will "be more robust and protective" of escapes.
Mallory-Smith, however, questioned whether Scotts can prevent future escapes of the bentgrass.
"I don't think it is possible to prevent gene movement with the technology the way it is, and I don't think that is unique to bentgrass," Mallory-Smith said.
"But bentgrass has all the worst characteristics (for escaping)," Mallory-Smith said.
The hard, tiny bentgrass seed can persist for several years in a dormant state in soil, and germinate if irrigated, Mallory-Smith said.
Scotts also is using genetic modification to develop grass plants with drought tolerance and low growing characteristics to reduce mowing.