A national seed company is requesting state approval for an 11,00-acre control area in Central Oregon to grow genetically modified grass seed that's resistant to the herbicide Roundup.
The area north of Madras would essentially be off-limits to conventionally bred stocks of creeping bentgrass, which is grown commercially for golf courses.
Struggling farmers with dwindling crop options in the irrigated region north of Madras view the genetically modified grass seed as a potential lifeline, said one farmer. Critics, though, fret that the grass's pollen or seed could escape the 25-mile-long containment border, creating a superweed.
The acreage under consideration is on Agency Plains, a former high desert rangeland watered by a large irrigation project. Crops ranging from carrot seed to peppermint are grown, but options for rotation crops are limited, making the grass seed proposal enticing to farmers.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture will hold a public hearing on the proposal by The Scotts(cq) Co., which sells seed under the Scotts Seed brand, Monday at 1 p.m. in a conference room at the Jefferson County Administration Building. A written public comment period is open until Dec. 19.
It's expected to take about 30 days from the close of the public comment period for a decision, said a state spokesman.
The genetically modified creeping bentgrass is under federal regulatory review and isn't sold commercially. If the state approves the request, only about 300 to 600 acres are expected to be planted initially with the genetically modified creeping bentgrass, said Kevin Turner of The Scotts Co.
"Basically what we have to do is show that except for this one trait, it's going to perform just like creeping bentgrass," Turner said. "And this one trait is not going to alter this plant in any other way other than it is Roundup resistant."
Agency Plains farmer Ron Olson, who plans on planting the genetically modified bentgrass, said that the mere mention of the words "genetically modified" sends people into panic mode.
"I think there's been controversy about growing a superweed, but bentgrass escapes haven't been a problem in other crops," he said. "To growers here it's a non-issue."
About 20 Madras-area farmers are interested in growing the crop, he said. Anyone who grows the crop has to sign a contract that calls for intense stewardship, he said.
For example, combines used to harvest the creeping bentgrass won't be used to harvest other crops, Olson said.
"There is apprehension on the part of the growers, but that is the mindset instilled by the press that oppose anything that's genetically modified," he said.
Terri Lomax, a professor and program director at Oregon State University, said the primary concern with genetically modified grasses is the chance of the resistant gene spreading to other grasses.
"They're actually doing the right thing by trying to set aside this large area because you won't run into these conflicts with contaminating your neighbors' crops," Lomax said.
A question for many grass seed growers in the Willamette Valley, said OSU weed science professor Carol Mallory-Smith, is what is done with the harvested grass seed?
"What is going to really keep it from entering the Willamette Valley?" she said.
Turner said that once the seed is harvested, it will be sent to a cleaning plant within the control district in enclosed boxes. From the cleaning plant, the grass seed will be shipped in leakproof containers such as buckets direct to golf courses that must adhere to strict guidelines to accept the grass seed - golf courses will be audited for compliance, Turner said.
If seeds escape the control area, the genetically modified creeping bentgrass can be killed with other herbicides, Turner said. It also requires ample water to sprout.
"If it gets off the project, it's right out in sagebrush and juniper country. Its chances for survival are very minimal," Turner said.
Having the control area and implementing stringent requirements on growers is overkill, Turner said. Genetically modified bentgrass is still bentgrass and not a threat, he said.
"But especially at the initial stages of biotechnology, we want people to be comfortable," Turner said.
Philip Bereano, a University of Washington professor and a founder of the Washington Biotechnology Council, said he's concerned about the health effects of the genetically modified grass seed pollen.
"We don't know what health effects there might be if the pollen does get in the air and it's inhaled by animals or humans," he said.
Risks to local plants, animals and people outweigh the benefits to golfers who would benefit from grass resistant to Roundup, Bereano said.
"In my view, this has a very, very low social value -- to make golfers marginally more happy and golfing more satisfying," he said. "A lot of modest income families in Oregon are running some risk so that benefits can accrue to other people."
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Last Updated on 12/5/01