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How A Botched Experiment Sent GMO Grass Creeping Across Oregon

<p>Creeping bent grass, left, and Poe Annua grass seed, right, Thursday, March 25, in Gervais, Oregon.</p>
<p>Creeping bent grass, left, and Poe Annua grass seed, right, Thursday, March 25, in Gervais, Oregon.</p>

For years, some farmers in central and eastern Oregon have been battling an unexpected new pest: a genetically modified strain of the soft, lush grass you’d commonly see on a golf course.

In 2003, a botched experiment by agribusiness giants Scotts Miracle-Gro and Monsanto unleashed a mutant strain of creeping bent grass across the state. It's a fight that raises questions about the regulation of GMOs and of who is on the hook when something goes awry.

Julia Rosen is a journalist who recently reported the story for High Country News. She spoke with OPB “Weekend Edition” host John Notarianni.

In the late 1990s, Scotts and Monsanto began experimenting with a Roundup-resistant strain of the grass.

“The idea was to make controlling weeds on golf courses easier for groundskeepers,” Rosen said.

Scotts Miracle-Gro planted 400 acres of its new product in Jefferson County, but a windstorm in 2003 scattered pollen and grass seeds across the region. The grass began growing in irrigation canals and hybridizing with other plants.

“These plants don’t even look like creeping bent grass,” Rosen said. "If you’re going out there trying to control this grass, you may not even notice it.”

Years later, in 2010, the grass suddenly showed up in Malheur County.

“Farmers were trying to kill it with Roundup and it wasn’t doing anything,” Rosen said. “That was a shock to people in Malheur County because it was never grown there.”

Scotts Miracle-Gro was fined $500,000 and continues to be involved in helping Malheur County farmers fight the spread of creeping bent grass. It’s more of an annoyance than an ecological disaster, but Rosen said a future GMO plant could wreck havoc on their fields.

“You could have a grass like this that could be resistant to drought, or heat, and that would give it a big competitive advantage in the wild.”

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