A genetically modified creeping grass which was developed for use on golf courses has gone native in Oregon, USA. For the past decade its creators, Scotts Miracle-Gro have been trying to eradicate the roundup-resistant grass from the wild, but amid evidence it has already crossed with native grasses to produce herbicide-tolerant offspring, they have decided to pull out.
Oregon is home to the largest US grass seed market and the self-professed grass seed capital of the world. Now farmers, seed sellers, environmentalists and scientists have joined forces in trying to force Scotts Miracle-Gro to take responsibility for its actions and protect Oregon's billion-dollar/annum industry.
Controlling the modified grass has been costing Scotts $250,000 per year, so they are attempting to hand over the problem to the state. They have offered to remain directly involved for three more years, while maintaining a website with instructions on how to eradicate the grass for a further seven.
Just two counties, Jefferson and Malheur, have been affected so far by contaminated grasses, but there are fears it could spread into the Willamette Valley, the heart of the grass seed industry. Without Scotts to oversee the eradication program, state authorities might struggle to restrict the spread of herbicide-tolerant strains.
There are fears the contaminated seed could affect wildlife, particularly endangered species like Fender's Blue Butterfly, which is only found in the Willamette Valley. Former director of the Oregon Agriculture Department Katy Coba, said: "We don't understand the ecological or the economic impact of this. We need to figure out the extent of the contamination."
But the most pressing issue for Oregon's economy is the impact contamination might have on seed sales. International buyers from many countries are instructed not to purchase GM seeds. Any hint of their presence and purchases are suspended.
Scotts Miracle-Gro came up with the Creeping bentgrass variety after a $100m investment throughout the 1990s and 2000s. It was intended to be used on golf greens. Creeping bentgrass can be cut very short and produces a fine smooth surface, while other grasses that colonise the greens have to be wed by hand. A roundup-tolerant grass seemed like a good idea. Scotts spokesman Jim King told The Oregonian: "It was incredibly attractive to the golf industry. Creeping bentgrass is probably as good a playing surface as you'll ever find in the northern U.S. But it's also really subject to infestation from other grasses."
Scotts requested a seed licence for the modified grass in 2002, but during its final phase of field trials the breakout occurred. In August 2003, a hot wind ripped through the grass plots, dislodging viable seeds and scattering them for miles. Some modified plants were found 13 miles away while others quickly colonised the Crooked River National Grasslands.
The issue has highlighted the difference between GM food crops, which are for the most part annuals, and perennials like grass, that typically survive winter and can reproduce themselves using seed. Scotts was fined $500,000 in 2007 and told to control and eradicate the modified grass.
Strangely, they have now also sought deregulation for the grass, even though they have said they are no longer interested in pursuing its original commercial application. The Agriculture Agency which refused them a licence a decade ago is now co-operating with their requests, much to the outrage of local people.