Meet Monsanto's Dangerous Bioengineered Plant That Never Dies

Earlier this month, the Department of Agriculture quietly greenlighted the first-ever genetically engineered grass. The GE creeping bentgrass, a product of Monsanto and Scotts, is genetically engineered to be immune to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

You may not have heard of it, but GE grass has quite a horror-film backstory. Once destined for golf courses nationwide, Monsanto first petitioned USDA for approval in 2002. Scientists were very worried: like all GMOs, the GE grass could cross-pollinate with related wild species, and spread uncontrollably. Because their tiny seeds and even lighter pollen can be carried on the wind for many miles, and they have lots of relatives they can cross-pollinate, GE grasses are even more assured to spread and contaminate other plants than other GE crops, like GE corn or GE soy, are. And like all of Monsanto’s GE products, they were engineered with the sole purpose of selling more Roundup to douse on them, which has resulted in dramatic increases in the harmful chemicals entering our waters and native ecosystems. So when the GE grass did escape, farmers and regulators would have a superweed to deal with, one that would require even more toxic herbicides to kill.

Despite these concerns, the process moved along. The chemical companies that engineer patented GE seeds first do outdoor experiments—trials that are overseen by USDA, albeit usually poorly. And the 2003 GE grass experiments turned into a spectacular nightmare for USDA, Monsanto, and Scotts.

First, the Center for Food Safety successfully sued over the field trials, resulting in a federal court finding them unlawful. Remarkably, USDA had failed to analyze the environmental impacts of the GE grass escaping the trials. It got worse from there: as we and others had warned, the GE grass did indeed escape the trials and spread, even contaminating a National Grassland over a dozen miles away. A USDA investigation ended in a half a million dollar penalty.  

Separately, as we later found out using the Freedom of Information Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service undertook a scientific study of the GE bentgrass. FWS concluded that, if it was ever commercially approved, the grass would escape, spread, and edge-out native species and take over their habitat – likely causing the extinction of at least three endangered species (two endangered plants and a butterfly, the Fender Blue Butterfly), and potentially dozens more endangered species.  

Farmers were also extremely worried. They did they not want a novel superweed invading. Also, the experiments were in Oregon, the grass seed capital of the world, where grass seed is a 300 million dollar a year industry to the state. So the crop contamination risks could not be any higher. Nor are they hypothetical risks, far from it: Repeated GMO contamination incidents in other U.S. crops have cost farmers literally billions over the past decade in rejected sales, lost exports and closed agricultural markets, with new episodes “cropping” up regularly.

This should have been the end of GE bentgrass – and everybody thought it was. Field trials were halted, and Scotts and Monsanto stopped pushing for a commercial approval. Until 2011, when, out of the blue, Oregon farmers found new feral populations thriving in the wild, five years after Scotts and Monsanto promised it was all cleaned up. USDA initially tried to keep the new discovery a secret, but the findings became public because of testimony in another case of ours. Scotts/Monsanto and USDA swooped back in, unveiling a new plan and assuring local farmers and Oregon state regulators that this time, they actually would eliminate the rogue GE grass.

However after four years of failing, the chemical companies devised a new Machiavellian scheme: in exchange for a promise to USDA they would not commercialize the GE grass, USDA would finally grant their petition to commercial it. Why? Because once USDA granted the approval, USDA would lose the authority it has to make the companies clean up the mess, pushing the problem instead onto the shoulders of the local farmers and the state. And the “promise” not to commercialize? Only good, at most, through 2023, and revocable at any time by Scotts.  

Oregon opposed. So did the local farmers and public interest organizations. FWS restated its alarm. Yet in the dying days of this administration, USDA apparently prioritized doing the chemical companies’ bidding, issuing the approval for GE bentgrass anyway. And those acknowledged harms to farmers and the environment? The agency refused (again) to weigh them, this time saying it didn’t have to because they would not come to pass, since the companies have promised not to sell the harmful product USDA just relinquished authority over. Because corporations, including Monsanto, have never lied before, right? Perhaps they have some oceanfront property out in eastern Oregon to sell farmers too.  

It’s not over yet. USDA has until January 9 to rethink this irresponsible decision. Tell them to stop fulfilling Monsanto’s Christmas wishlist and instead protect farmers and the environment as they should. Zombie engineered grasses nobody wants, regulatory agencies captured by industry, irresponsible decision-making? A bizarrely fitting way to enter into the new administration, unfortunately. 

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