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June 25, 2018 | Patti Mulligan

Dr. Jennifer Kuzma, Co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center, discusses the ecological impacts, and need for improved regulation, of genetically engineering and gene edited crops and products in this article from High Country News.

GMO grass is creeping across Oregon

Missteps by agribusiness giants allowed the invasion. Now they’re off the hook for cleanup.

Julia Rosen, June 25, 2018


In the failing light of an unusually warm January day, Jerry Erstrom and I race along a dirt track behind Rod Frahm’s white pickup. Here, near Ontario, Oregon, a stone’s throw from the Idaho border, Frahm grows onions, squash and corn. But today, he wants to show us something he’s growing against his will: a genetically engineered turfgrass designed for golf courses.

Frahm slams on the brakes next to a dry irrigation ditch, jumps out and yanks up a clump, winter-brown but laced with new green shoots. Beneath his gray fedora, his dark eyes glint with anger as he holds out the scraggly specimen. “I have it in a lot of my ditches,” he says.

Just to be sure, Erstrom produces a plastic vial the size and shape of a .22 caliber bullet. He stuffs a few blades into it, adds water, and mashes the mixture with a wooden rod, like a bartender muddling mint. Then he inserts a plastic strip and hands it to me. It’s like a pregnancy test: One line confirms it’s working, while the other detects a gene that unmasks the intruder.

We wait, batting away gnats and breathing in the aroma of onions, whose colorful skins litter the county roads. Then the results appear: This is indeed the variety of creeping bentgrass that agribusiness giants Scotts Miracle-Gro and Monsanto engineered to tolerate the herbicide Roundup.

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.

“There is no check to see whether the ecological implications are being thought through,” Kuzma says.

* * *

To critics, the case laid bare glaring weaknesses in the country’s oversight of genetically engineered, or GE, crops. While biotechnology’s defenders say the process is already overly rigorous, others have long argued that regulations, which haven’t changed significantly since 1987, don’t do enough to protect agriculture and the environment. Neither the USDA nor any government agency must weigh the full social, economic and ecological impacts of GE products, says Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University. “There’s really no place that’s looking at this broadly from a risk-benefit perspective.”

* * *

In 2000, Congress passed a law that provided the first real opportunity to rethink GE regulation. It allows APHIS to extend its authority over noxious weeds to GE products, theoretically granting the agency greater discretion over potentially weedy crops, Kuzma says. (Notably, conventionally bred crops are far less regulated, and have also led to weed issues.) However, regulations have yet to change. APHIS has tried twice to revamp the rules to reflect the new law, and to address issues raised in the 2005 audit, but failed when new presidential administrations scrapped the proposals before they could be finalized. Today, Biotechnology Regulatory Services still operates under regulations written last century. “We’d like to change that,” Abel says.

It’s unclear whether the updates would have changed the outcome for bentgrass, but there’s growing urgency to do something, Kuzma says. Current regulations don’t allow APHIS to regulate the increasing number of products engineered with synthetic tools like gene guns. Roughly 60 GE organisms now fall outside the agency’s authority because they weren’t made with a plant pest, and all can be released into the environment without review. A soybean has already been commercialized, and an anti-browning button mushroom has drawn media attention. But the list also includes four grasses developed by Scotts. “There is no check to see whether the ecological implications are being thought through,” Kuzma says.

Read the full article at High Country News


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