Agency weighs genetically modified grass Corvallis forum

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Agency weighs genetically modified grass Corvallis forum, one of only two in nation, reviews genetic engineering arguments

Thursday, May 19, 2005Last modified Thursday, May 19, 2005 12:28 AM PDT

By EriN MadisonGazette-Times reporter

While government officials heard comments on the deregulation of a variety of herbicide-resistant grass Wednesday, a small group of demonstrators performed a skit in opposition outside.The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service hosted the forum at CH2M Hill Alumni Center at Oregon State University. Visitors were given the chance to ask questions, look at displays and write comments related to the deregulation of genetically engineered creeping bent grass.

Members of the protest group, Northwest Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, stood outside the center, handing out information on the issue.The group's skit included a hiker, a farmer, a grass expert and a representative of Monsanto " a major producer of genetically modified seed " laughing as he spread his seeds and counted his money. The farmer is having problems getting rid of bent grass, and the hiker keeps finding grass she's never seen before. The grass expert then comes on the scene and informs the hiker and farmer that the grass is a genetically engineered type of bent grass. All three characters demand that Monsanto clean up the grass.The demonstrators argued that the genetically engineered bent grass that was planted in a controlled test area near Madras has already spread more than 13 miles farther than scientists expected and cross-pollinated with wild grasses in the region.

The pollen also drifted into the Crooked River National Grassland and has the potential to permanently damage that public land ecosystem, said Jim Felderman, a volunteer with the resistance organization.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will prepare an environmental impact statement after it received a petition from the Monsanto Co. and Scott's Co. to grant non-regulated status to a new variety of genetically engineered, herbicide-tolerant, creeping bent grass.The government inspection service is in the public comment stage of the environmental impact statement and will continue to accept comment until June 1."This is part of our scoping effort," said Craig Roseland with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. "Our job is to say, What is the potential impact?'"After the comment period, officials will review feedback and look into any issues or questions people have."All subjects brought up, however varied they are, will all be addressed," said Larry Hawkins, regional public affairs officer for the inspection service.

At this time, they are collecting information before a decision is made, he said."APHIS is neutral on this issue," Hawkins said.So far, most of the comments received are in favor of the deregulation from certain parts of the grass industry. Others, though, have been made by people who are concerned about having a strain of grass that is resistant to weed-control, Hawkins said."

Some people would consider bent grass a good thing and some people would consider it a weed," he said.

This type of bent grass would be used mainly for golf courses and is not intended for use on home lawns, according to an information sheet prepared by the OSU Outreach in Resource Biotechnology Program. The grass is not yet available for commercial use and awaits government approval.The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service regulates all bio-engineered products, Hawkins said.

A similar forum was held earlier this month near Washington, D.C. The Corvallis forum was the only other forum scheduled. Corvallis was an obvious choice, Hawkins said because of the area's large turf grass and seed industry."

We felt like this particular issue is one that could have a direct impact here," he said.Completing the environmental impact statement depends on the public comments received and what issues are brought up, he said.

Ryan Lins, an OSU graduate student who attended the forum, speculated that the deregulation of the grass is completely market-driven. He has no idea whether it will go through."I keep hearing different rumors that it is and then that it isn't," Lins said.

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