THE GMO BENTGRASS PROBLEM GROWING OUT OF CONTROLJuly 10, 2018
Warren Chamberlain, who chairs the irrigation district west of Ontario, thinks the birds will bring bentgrass to him. The day after our lunch in Nyssa, Erstrom and I visit Chamberlain’s dairy farm near the two-stop-sign community of Willowcreek. “We’re going to be stuck fighting this for the rest of our lives,” he laments. “All so somebody could have green grass on a golf course.”
That quotation sums up the whole GMO conundrum in this country in a nutshell, and it also sums up the regulatory agencies' own complicity in a growing problem, one that could indeed become a crisis. It also sums up the "we could care less" attitude of the big GMO agribusiness giants, like Mon(ster)santo, now recently merged with Germany's big chemical conglomerate Bayer, to form what I've called I.G. Farbensanto.
This article, shared by Ms. K.M., is pure gold, in terms of its summary of the problems that GMOs pose to farmers who simply do not want the stuff, and are trying to sell their products to countries with strict GMO controls, for their crops are being contaminated, in this case, by a special genetically engineered grass - common grass - that is Roundup resistant. The grass was designed to be sold to golf courses, but, predictably, got out of its test fields and is now creeping and crawling its way throughout western Idaho and eastern Oregon, and there's no stopping it. Here's the article:
The grass arrived here uninvited, after crossing the Snake River from old seed fields in Idaho. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which vets most new genetically engineered products, had not approved the plant’s release. But in 2010, landowners discovered it growing in great mats throughout the irrigation system that stretches like a spider web across Malheur County.
Creeping bentgrass has not created a catastrophe, as some anti-GMO groups warned it would. But it thrives in canals and ditches, where it collects sediment and impedes water flow, and it has proved difficult to control. That makes it a headache for Frahm and other growers — like the heavy snows that crushed their onion sheds last year, and the host of other weeds they already battle.
No one believes the bentgrass can be fully eradicated, either. And as long as it’s around, some fear it could contaminate non-GMO crops and invade natural areas. “It just scares the bejeezus out of me,” says Erstrom, a retired Bureau of Land Management natural resource specialist who chairs the Malheur County Weed Advisory Board.
The upshot of the government's decision - effectively absolving Scotts of responsibility for the problem - has been to make the local farmers and irrigation districts responsible for the problem. But how did the genetically modified grass get out of control in the first place?
Things went well at first. Scotts conducted dozens of field trials, marshaling evidence that its bentgrass was safe and differed from regular bentgrass only in its Roundup resistance. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, considers these questions when deciding whether to release new genetically engineered organisms from regulatory oversight — a necessary step for wide commercial sale. In 2003, with results in hand, Scotts and Monsanto petitioned the agency to deregulate the grass.
At the same time, Scotts got permission from the USDA to plant larger fields for seed production. Farmers sowed 80 acres of bentgrass in Canyon County, Idaho, and 420 acres in Jefferson County, Oregon, north of Bend. The Oregon Department of Agriculture picked the site — an irrigated island in the sagebrush sea — to keep the plant far from the Willamette Valley. There, on the western side of the mountains, farmers grow forage and turf grass for a $1 billion-a-year seed industry.
Then two windstorms swept through the eastern Oregon fields in August of 2013, scattering flea-sized seeds well beyond the designated control area. Roundup-resistant pollen fertilized conventional bentgrass plants as far as 13 miles away. There was no calling it back.
The escape didn’t surprise anyone, says Carol Mallory-Smith, a weed scientist at Oregon State University. She says she warned APHIS that permitting the seed fields was tantamount to deregulation; even without the storms, the grass’ biology practically guaranteed its spread. The decision to move ahead anyway reflected the agency’s somewhat cavalier approach to field trials at the time. A 2005 USDA audit found that it did not, for instance, keep track of field locations or review companies’ plans for containing their products. The audit warned that APHIS’ procedures did “not go far enough to ensure the safe introduction of agricultural biotechnology.”
In 2007, APHIS fined Scotts $500,000 — the largest amount allowable — for losing control of the bentgrass. “There was no doubt they violated the agreement,” says Meier, who had left Scotts to work for the agency by then. But he didn’t think the bentgrass’ escape in Oregon, or from future plantings, was cause for concern. It has never been a weed in crops like corn, soy or wheat, he says.
However, APHIS soon discovered that not everyone shared Meier’s view. In particular, federal land management agencies already struggled to manage creeping bentgrass and its relatives in natural areas, and objected to the prospect of losing one of their best tools: Roundup. “The deregulation of this organism,” the U.S. Forest Service wrote bluntly, “has the potential to adversely impact all 175 national forests and grasslands.”
So, in addition to potential threats to forests, one of the companies responsible - Scotts - was fined a mere $500,000, and there's no mention of any fine to the other partner in the engineered gold grass scheme, Mon(ster)santo. The result of there field trials was that the wind and birds carried the grass beyond the test field, and now there's no stopping it.
But this highlights the whole problem that I've blogged about time and again on this site: the agribusiness companies are very quick to sue farmers when their fields are found to contain their genetically engineered plants, even if they didn't plant their fields with them but the seeds were carried by storms or birds, but somehow they never seem to suffer from the same problem in reverse when their engineered products threaten the produce of farmers who do not want their products. It is precisely this sort of environmental impact that caused Russia to turn against GMOs and to institute very long-term intergenerational studies of environmental and health impact of GMOs. (One can only hope that the Trump-Putin effort will address the issue, and allow non-GMO Russian crops, produce, and seeds to be sold here).
But wait, there's more looming problems:
Of course, Scotts did pay a fine. But then Malheur County landowners noticed that Roundup no longer worked on what they thought were regular bentgrass plants in their ditches. They brought samples to OSU’s local experiment station, which sent them to Mallory-Smith in Corvallis. She soon confirmed the fugitive plant’s identity.
Scotts hired contractors to help the irrigation district fight the grass, but it kept getting ahead of them, says Gary Page, the Malheur County weed inspector. Workers sprayed other herbicides every spring and fall. But they struggled to keep up in summer, when the grass grew long and flowered. The ditches were full and the only herbicide approved for use near water was Roundup. (Emphasis added)
In other words, Roundup would not work on the grass, because the grass is engineered to be resistant to it, and other herbicides don't work either, so the grass grows and grows in irrigation ditches.
I don't know about you, but I call that a problem.
The rest of the article is a classic case of competing agencies, with competing jurisdictions, through which the agribusiness companies march and push their products, and all along, the old warning from F. William Engdahl and other early researchers into the looming GMO mess remains true: there was little to no long-term inter-generational environmental or health impact studies. And as the article also points out, some of this grass has now naturally merged with other grasses to produce natural hybrids that are also Roundup resistant. Additionally, the article also points out yet another problem, and this one is not a looming problem, it's already happened:
Erstrom watched with increasing worry. He feared that bentgrass might creep into alfalfa or carrot seed bound for anti-GE export markets like Japan, causing crops to get rejected. It could also hitch a ride to the Willamette Valley in the hay Malheur County supplies to many dairies, he says, and infiltrate the grass seed industry.
Contamination is a frequent source of friction over GE crops. A 2014 survey by Food and Water Watch, an opponent of biotechnology, reported that a third of all organic grain producers had found unwanted GE products on their farms. The majority had taken preventive measures to reduce the risk — which cost individual farmers thousands of dollars. A USDA survey, published the same year, found that economic losses due to contaminated organic crops were relatively small — $6 million in total since 2011. But it did not track impacts on non-organic, non-GE growers, who make up a much larger share of the agricultural industry.
In most cases, the offending plant is a commercial crop. But there are exceptions, as when an eastern Oregon farmer found Roundup Ready wheat growing in a field in 2013. Mallory-Smith identified it as a variety Monsanto had field-tested in the state before it abandoned its bid for deregulation. In the wake of the discovery, Japan and South Korea temporarily stopped buying wheat from the Pacific Northwest.
But what happens when American agricultural products are so tainted with GMO contaminated crops of plants that countries with stricter regulations quit buying from the USA altogether? Agricultural products continue to be one of the USA's major exports, and it would be, needless to say, a blow, especially in an atmosphere of increasing talk of "trade wars" and tariffs. A dramatic fall of exports would have a large and adverse effect on the US economy. There's a flip side to that problem too: for those countries would have to buy agricultural products from somewhere. And guess which country doesn't allow GMOs?
Meanwhile, in the Kremlin, Mr. Putin is smiling...
See you on the flip side...