GMO bentgrass plan gets harsh reception

Sean Ellis/Capital Press Malheur County farmer Jerry Erstrom makes a point March 1 during a meeting in Ontario, Ore., to discuss plans to manage a genetically engineered bentgrass that escaped from field trials in Oregon and Idaho in 2003. Farmers and irrigation district officials are concerned the plan won't work.

ONTARIO, Ore. — During a contentious meeting March 1, farmers and irrigation district officials challenged USDA’s recent agreement with Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. to manage a genetically engineered creeping bentgrass that escaped from field trials in 2003.

The grass has taken root in Malheur and Jefferson counties in Oregon and Canyon County in Idaho.

Farmers and others expressed concern about the 10-year plan between Scotts and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

“They created the problem. They let it escape. Now you’re dumping it on Malheur and Canyon county,” seed grower Jerry Erstrom told Sid Abel, assistant deputy director of USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services.

Scotts, in conjunction with Monsanto Corp., was developing a genetically modified creeping bentgrass for use mainly in the golf course industry.

Since the grass escaped from grower field trials near Parma in Idaho and Madras in Jefferson County in 2003, it has taken root in those areas.

Scotts was fined for the incidents and signed a consent agreement in 2007.

Erstrom, chairman of the Malheur County Weed Board, and others said that because the grass is genetically engineered to resist Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer, it is hard to eradicate and is causing problems in waterways.

Erstrom said the grass has also invaded pastures, which is a problem for anyone raising organic livestock, and if it gets into a shipment of hay or grain, the shipment can be rejected for overseas markets that don’t tolerate traces of genetically modified organisms.

“It has a lot of potential ramifications for the county,” he said.

USDA’s agreement with Scotts, approved in September, requires the company to continue to survey for the grass in the affected counties in 2016 and try to eradicate it where possible.

In years 2 and 3, the company will provide technical assistance to affected farmers and irrigation districts and provide incentives for the adoption of best management practices to control the grass.

Scotts will also conduct outreach and education programs.

In years 4 through 10, the company will pull back a little but still continue to analyze the situation, educate growers and provide technical assistance, Abel said.

Scotts will also continue working with Oregon State University researchers to try to identify herbicides that can effectively manage the grass.

Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba expressed concern about the plan in a Feb. 17 letter to USDA that prompted the Ontario meeting.

In her letter, Coba said the plan “passes the burden for management of (the grass) onto affected stakeholders.”

The letter says that ODA “is concerned that Oregon ranchers, growers and irrigation districts will have limited tools and resources available to ... manage this herbicide-resistant grass effectively.”

Clint Shock, director of OSU’s Malheur County experiment station, told Abel that Scotts approached him about conducting bentgrass trials there and he refused the project because he didn’t believe the plant could be contained and should never leave the laboratory.

“What you’re proposing is to (take) all the burden and loss off of APHIS and Scotts ... and (put it) on to the community,” he said. “That’s really what it amounts to.”

Erstrom said the agreement is “nothing more than a plan for Scotts to get off the economic hook of fixing what they broke.”

That prompted Bob Harriman, Scotts’ vice president of biotechnology, to stand up and defend the company.

“We have a history of being an honorable company,” he said. “Judge us on the actions we’re taking (and) the progress we’re making. We want to do the right thing.”

Abel rejected accusations that USDA and Scotts were walking away from the situation and said the plan can be changed if necessary.

“No, USDA is not walking away, nor is Scotts,” he said. “We are in this for the long haul. I ask you to give us a chance. Let this plan evolve and work and we will change it if necessary.”

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