But the push to combine experimentation with sales production backfired. Willamette Valley farms were well out of range of the test site, but that didn’t mean the grass wouldn’t spread. Trouble kicked up with what was euphemistically identified as a “wind event”—or, according to locals, a “dust devil”—a tornado-like whirlwind common during summer in the high desert. Scotts had instituted a number of controls to keep the transgenic grass from migrating, but to no avail. (In fact, an outside study conducted during the trials found that, even before the wind event occurred, pollen had already traveled 13 miles outside the control area.) Tiny seeds carried on the breeze landed outside the lines that had been neatly penciled onto county maps. Seeds that took flight and managed to take root will, assuming they survive hazards like trampling or drought, keep coming back year after year, just like other wild perennials, and in turn will send their seeds up into the wind. Not only that, but there is already evidence that the grass cross-pollinated with other species, passing on the trait of Roundup resistance to other area grasses.
The headlines about GM bentgrass establishing itself in the wild spread quickly: “Smoking Grass: A US Study of Frankenfood Crops Spells Trouble for Europe” (Newsweek), “Genes from Engineered Grass Spread for Miles” (New York Times), “GM Grass Takes a Walk on the Wild Side” (Times of London). From activists, warnings cropped up along the lines of “Monsanto’s Frankengrass Sows Controversy” (Organic Consumers Association). (Monsanto had invested in the bentgrass project.) In a flash, Scotts was facing a public relations disaster, growers and agriculture officials were scrambling to protect the name of Oregon-grown goods, and ecologists were trying to comprehend the grass’s environmental impact.
Despite the ominous headlines, the grass escape was worrisome not so much because it happened—regulators, scientists, and local growers had predicted that it would, but concluded that the risk to local farms and ecology was minimal. The episode was shocking because the seeds flew much farther than expected, then established themselves in the wild and spread their genes more quickly than anyone had anticipated.
On his company property just a few miles from one of the experimental grass plots, Weber of Central Oregon Seeds takes pains to distinguish what was—and was not—cause for alarm. “Let’s be perfectly clear: there has been no problem with seed from the contamination event. Nothing got into our containers or shipments to any of our customers. That is just critical,” he says. Critical because of what’s at stake for a company that ships locally grown seeds for carrots, onions, and parsley to customers across the globe.
When word reached Weber that the transgenic grass had spread, he didn’t fret, he says, because the harvest times for the grass and the crops his farmers grow are different, and the tiny size of the grass seed means that even if it had been brought into the sorting facility, it would be separated out from other seeds during the collection and packaging process. Still, in response to the wayward GM grass seed, Weber had a “rouging crew” of about a dozen workers walk through fields and collect bits of grass material that had blown onto carrot plants and other crops. “We certainly had to take our time with it,” he says.
What truly caught Weber by surprise was how much of a shadow the rogue GM seed cast over his company’s product, or more precisely, over any products coming from Jefferson County farms. Weber soberly recalls the words spoken by the president of Central Oregon Seeds’ biggest customer, the Dutch vegetable-seed multinational Bejo: “If you ever send us GM anything in a vbag of carrot seed, it’s on you.”
“That put the fear of God in me,” says Weber. “This was not something to trifle with.”