A decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deregulate a genetically modified grass seed has raised concerns about contamination in Oregon’s billion-dollar grass seed industry.

Genetically modified creeping bentgrass was created by Scotts Miracle-Gro as a product for golf courses. But the grass escaped from its test plots, and has continued to spread across Southeast and Central Oregon – despite eradication efforts.

The USDA published its final decision on Wednesday, approving a request from Scotts to deregulate the company’s bentgrass seed after determining that the plant is “unlikely to pose a plant pest risk.”

Jerry Erstrom chairs the weed board in Malheur County, where the grass has taken root after crossing the Snake River from Idaho. He’s seen firsthand how fast the grass can spread and how hard it is to wipe out because it’s resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in most herbicides.

“There are only one or two herbicides labeled to be used upon it,” he said. “The caveat is they can only be used in dry areas. Anything on a shoreline, in wetlands or along riparian, there’s nothing that can remove it. The only way is by hand or shovel.”

Erstrom expects the grass will prevent him from exporting the hay he grows because overseas buyers shun genetically modified plants, and he’s worried about how much damage it could do if it spreads to the grass seed industry in the Willamette Valley.

“Not only economically but environmentally – the devastation it can cause – people don’t appreciate how bad it can be,” he said. “If this should happen to get across into the Willamette Valley I think it would at least destroy the export market for the grass growers there.”

In recent years, Scotts has been spending $250,000 a year to stop the plant from spreading any farther, but Erstrom said deregulation takes the company off the hook for the costs of eradicating the plant.

Scotts says it has abandoned its plans to sell the seed, and is committed to helping eradicate the plant in the future. But as reported in The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, an agreement Scotts signed with the USDA in 2015 allows the company to step back from leading the eradication efforts in 2018.

Erstrom has teamed up with the environmental group Center For Biological Diversity, which is threatening to sue over the deregulation decision.

“Because this blatant bow to industry will continue to harm farmers, endangered species and the precious landscape, the USDA has left us with no choice but to explore our legal options to return the burden of controlling this weedy grass back to the shoulders of the corporate profiteers who brought it into the world,” Center for Biological Diversity attorney Lori Ann Burd said in a statement.

Don Herb, president of OreGro Seeds in Albany said he’s hoping the grass won’t reach the Willamette Valley, but in the meantime he wants the Oregon Department of Agriculture to label the grass as a plant pest.

“It is an invasive weed you can’t control,” he said.

In public comments to the USDA, the Oregon Department of Agriculture opposed the deregulation, citing concerns that local landowners would get stuck with the costs of controlling the grass.

“We’ve seen it has the potential to spread,” said ODA spokesman Bruce Pokarney. “It got loose, and it’s spreading. … We would hope that Scotts will continue to work with landowners to address the issues and we have encouraged that strongly. Don’t leave it all on them.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also raised concerns that the grass could jeopardize the endangered Willamette Daisy and harm the critical habitat of the Fenders blue butterfly.

Originally Posted: opb.org