You probably didn't know that the state of Oregon is the self-professed grass seed capital of the world. Grass, it turns out, is a fairly lucrative claim to fame, accounting for more than a billion dollars in economic activity each year in the state.
But genetically modified grass that "escaped" is threatening to upend that industry. More than a decade ago, the garden giant Scotts Miracle-Gro accidentally allowed engineered grass to get away from its test beds, and in one case cross the state line from Oregon into Idaho. The herbicide-resistant greenery has since taken root in two counties in Oregon.
The genetically-modified grass not only threatens the local grass industry, but, according to US Fish and Wildlife, commercialising it could actually "jeopardise the continued existence" of two endangered plant species and would "adversely modify" the habitat of other endangered species, like Fender's Blue Butterfly of Oregon's Willamette Valley.
In 2007, the USDA fined Scotts $US500,000 ($679,193) for allowing the GMO grass to escape and held the company responsible for controlling its mess. The company has since abandoned efforts to commercialise the grass, but curiously still pushed for it to be deregulated. Even more curiously, Oregon Live reports that after over a decade of pushing back, the US federal government may give in to those wishes, potentially forcing the state to spend millions to clean up the company's GMO grass mess for it.
The issue makes clear why, in our time of easier-than-ever genetic engineering, it's so important to come up with safeguards to prevent lab-made disasters from wreaking havoc in the wild. In agriculture, fiascos like Oregon's Terror of the Grass are not unheard of. The use of genetically engineered crops on farms is, of course, nothing new, and sometimes things go awry. Last year, for example, Midwest corn farmers launched a class-action lawsuit against Syngenta AG, alleging that the company's genetically modified corn had contaminated fields of non-GMO corn and cost them billions of dollars in the process.
Unlike food crops, grass is a perennial, which means it is harder to contain once loose in the wild, because it doesn't die at the end of a growing season. Not to mention its seeds are tiny and lightweight, easily travelling significant distances with a little gust of wind. Powerful new genetic engineering techniques, some of which the ag-giant Monsanto recently licensed, will make these crops even hardier — and harder to kill.