Genetically engineered bentgrass pollen can easily cross containment zone and cross-pollinate with native species or drive them out.
By Jennifer Polis
The fight is on for the Willamette Valleys grass seed industry, as biotech giant Monsanto and Scotts lawn care company attempt to deregulate genetically engineered (GE) grass. But environmental groups and even the federal government have jumped in to call for more testing and to stop the new technology from destroying the ecosystem and the Willamette Valleys place as the grass seed capital of the world.
The controversy, which began in 2001, flared up recently after an Oregon study found GE grass pollen traveled much farther than previously thought. The EPA study was conducted on a 400-acre test site with an 11,000-acre buffer zone near Madras, using creeping bentgrass genetically engineered to resist the popular herbicide RoundUp. Scientists were surprised to find that the GE pollen traveled 13 miles, well outside of the control area, and contaminated its wild relatives nine miles away. These findings are especially troublesome to farmers in the Willamette Valley, which produces over half of the worlds grass seed, bringing in more than $300 million a year. The study has also prompted the first-ever environmental impact statement of a GE crop.
Creeping bentgrass is used mainly on golf courses, but its relatives can be found in almost every habitat in North America. The Scotts Company and Monsanto, the manufacturer of RoundUp, filed a petition in 2003 to deregulate the grass, which would allow golf course groundskeepers to spray RoundUp directly onto the grass to kill unwanted weeds without damaging the course. The companies claim the GE grass will allow maintenance crews to spray less of the herbicide; others worry its release will devastate the environment.
Pollen doesnt recognize artificial limits, said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA). Its almost certain that other grasses have been contaminated that will spread the gene even farther. Although he doesnt think that the GE pollen could travel 90 miles to the heart of the Willamette Valley grass seed industry, he said it cant be completely ruled out. He also notes that field trials of other GE grasses are being conducted in several other states.
In the absence of more [GE] pollen, it is unlikely the gene will build up and spread in central Oregon, said Dan Hilburn, a plant division administrator with the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA). On the other hand, if [GE] bentgrass is deregulated, then it will be sold commercially to golf courses all over the country and the gene will inevitably show up in new areas.
The ICTA has filed for an immediate injunction to stop current and future field tests of GE bentgrass. Last year, they and others filed a federal lawsuit seeking to halt field trials until the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) completed a full environmental review.
As a result of the injunction, the USDA recently admitted that one of their scientists involved in the approval process, Dr. Virgil Meier, is a former Scotts employee.
The Meier declaration clearly calls into question the impartiality of the USDA in reviewing this product, stated ICTA Legal Director Joseph Mendelson III.
Of special concern is that GE bentgrass is much different than other GE crops that have been approved: Bentgrass is perennial, and easily establishes itself in natural and urban habitats due to its light pollen.
It also crossbreeds with at least a dozen wild relatives, increasing its chances of spreading throughout Oregon, potentially destroying the grass seed industry.
Critics, including the federal government, fear the new bentgrass could become a super weed, since engineering it to resist one of the most widely used herbicides would strip land management agencies of their primary means of controlling it on public lands. Even the New York Times ran a cautionary editorial: We must ensure that the genes from genetically engineered plants do not escape into the wild and wreak havoc in natural ecosystems.
GE bentgrass could also lead to groundskeepers using more RoundUp and other dangerous chemicals, not less. Golf course maintenance is already chemically-intensive, and groups such as Pesticide Action Network North America worry that RoundUp will be sprayed indiscriminately instead of being used for spot weed control. They point out that weeds around the world have naturally begun to develop resistance to RoundUp; as these instances continue to grow, farmers are forced to use even more dangerous herbicides.
Even the ODA, which supports biotechnology, is urging caution in light of the new study. We believe USDA should delay their decision until they have carefully reviewed the new data, assessed its importance and perhaps collected more data to answer important questions that still remain, Hilburn said. Although the ODA doesnt have the authority to approve GE bentgrass, they did authorize the control area for the study. The isolated control area seemed like a good idea when we set it up a few years back; it still seems like a good idea to me, he said.
Although the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the USDA released a GE bentgrass risk assessment last January that found no major unintended effects, it agreed that the issues needed to be looked at more closely. The agency called for public comments, the majority of which came in favor of the new technology. Supporters included university-based weed scientists, turf grass specialists, and golf course superintendents. Opposition, however, came not only from environmental groups, but also government officials from the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, which went so far as to say the grass could contaminate all 175 national forests.
In light of these comments, and the new studys findings, APHIS has decided to undertake a full environmental impact statement (EIS) and took public comments on the issue until Oct. 25. They will take these comments into account when releasing the draft of their EIS, and the public will have a chance to comment again before the final EIS.
Farmers, the ones mostly affected by this battle, are of a mixed mind, said Dave Nelson, executive director of the Oregon Grass Seed Council. While his group is not taking a stand, he said that they do support the development of a control district to isolate it away from the Willamette Valley. We do and will continue to provide education and information and have people make up their own minds, Nelson said.
Farmers who do support GE bentgrass think that it brings new hope to the Willamette Valley grass seed industry, which saw a downturn from 1990 until last year. Although this year has been successful, Nelson said, farmers do see profitability and usefulness in the new grass. Scotts [Company] offers a secure contract, he said. He also thinks the new grass could be grown far away from the Willamette Valley and have little chance of contamination, noting that grass pollen is only viable for four to five hours before it dies.
Farmers in opposition are concerned it will escape, cross with other bentgrass, and become a weed on their land. They also worry about the effect on the industrys export market, since 12 percent of the grass seed crop is exported to about 60 countries.
If it moves it could become a problem, Nelson said. There will be countries that wont accept it.
Jennifer Polis is a local freelance writer, portland indymedia activist, and NW RAGE volunteer. She can be reached at email@example.com
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Last Updated: January 10, 2005