CORVALLIS, Ore. — Oregon farm regulators are objecting to USDA’s proposed deregulation of a genetically engineered grass variety that escaped field trials more than a decade ago.
Last year, USDA reached an agreement with Scotts Miracle-Gro, which developed the glyphosate-resistant biotech creeping bentgrass, to lift federal regulations on the crop as long as it’s not commercialized.
Scotts would also conduct a 10-year management plan to control the grass, but some farmers have complained that the proposal will allow the company to eventually wash its hands of the problem while leaving them with spray costs and potential export barriers.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture has come out against the proposal, arguing it’s inappropriate to deregulate the bentgrass while it’s still infesting areas of Central and Eastern Oregon.
“We think it needs to be eradicated before deregulation,” said Lisa Hanson, ODA’s deputy director, during the March 29 meeting of the Oregon Board of Agriculture.
The ODA claims the biotech bentgrass doesn’t meet the federal requirements for deregulation because it “clearly falls into the category of a plant pest and noxious weed,” according to a letter sent to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
“It is invading irrigation canals and displacing native species in riparian areas in the affected Oregon counties,” the ODA letter said, noting that the crop should remain regulated until “a means to eradicate this pest becomes available.”
ODA also recommends that USDA convene a task force to evaluate the impacts of deregulation.
Biotech bentgrass is of particular concern near waterways because they can allow the crop to spread to new areas and potentially get out of control, said Helmuth Rogg, ODA’s plant program director.
There are also limited chemical methods for treating the bentgrass, he said. Not only is it resistant to glyphosate, but other herbicides often can’t be used in irrigation canals without potentially harming crops.
Canals can be treated with herbicides before they’re used to convey summer irrigation water, but that time window poses another challenge, Rogg said.
“The problem in early spring is it’s not easy to identify,” Rogg said.
At that point, the variety looks much like any other grass, he said. The crop is more distinctive in late summer.
Scotts developed the bentgrass for golf courses and began testing it with USDA’s consent in a “control area” in Central Oregon designated by ODA, but the cultivar escaped field trials in 2003 and continues to be found in Jefferson and Malheur counties.