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USDA Grants Final Approval for Monsanto/Scotts' Genetically Engineered Grass

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USDA Grants Final Approval for Monsanto/Scotts' Genetically Engineered Grass

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a final deregulation decision Wednesday approving Monsanto and Scotts' genetically engineered (GE) bentgrass, even as the highly invasive creeping grass continues to spread unchecked beyond its Oregon and Idaho test plots.

Decades-old outdoor experiments have proven the bentgrass impossible to control since it escaped from "controlled" plots and invaded irrigation ditches, riverbanks and the Crooked River National Grassland, crowding out native plants and the wildlife that depends on them. Despite more than a decade of efforts and millions of dollars spent, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Scotts and Monsanto have failed to curb the spread of the invasive grass. Yet now the USDA has capitulated to Monsanto's and Scotts' request that federal regulators relinquish any authority over the GE grass, leaving local landowners and state of Oregon to wrestle with the problem.

"The USDA's decision ignores a groundswell of united opposition from state departments of agriculture, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, university professors, scientists, farmers and conservationists," said Lori Ann Burd, director of the environmental health program at the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Because this blatant bow to industry will continue to harm farmers, endangered species and the precious landscape, the USDA has left us with no choice but to explore our legal options to return the burden of controlling this weedy grass back to the shoulders of the corporate profiteers who brought it into the world."

The GE bentgrass has already illegally contaminated at least three Oregon counties and the ultralight grass seeds and pollen have proven impossible to eradicate. Farmers and noxious weed experts in eastern Oregon have been outspoken critics of the proposal to approve the grass. In response to widespread contamination, GE creeping bentgrass was declared a noxious weed in Malheur County in 2016. With this approval the responsibility for controlling contamination now shifts from the USDA, Scotts and Monsanto to individual farmers and landowners, left alone to grapple with the problem.

"This decision is a slap in the face to family farmers," said Jerry Erstrom, chairman of the Malheur County Weed Board.

"It's extremely disappointing that the USDA has ignored the concerns of those of us affected by the existing contamination, as well as the Oregon and Idaho departments of agriculture and concerned folks from across the region. I just can't believe that they will turn this loose and let Scotts and Monsanto walk away from what they did here."

Unlike the USDA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized the danger of the novel GE grass and its likelihood of spreading out of control. The federal wildlife agency concluded that if approved, the grass is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the endangered Willamette daisy and Bradshaw's lomatuim and harm the critical habitat of the endangered Fender's blue butterfly and Willamette daisy.

"USDA's approval of this genetically engineered grass is as dangerous as it is unlawful," said George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety. "The agency is giving Monsanto and Scotts a free pass for the harm their product has already caused farmers and the environment and is irresponsibly gambling future harm on nothing more than their empty promises." The Center for Food Safety won a 2007 legal victory declaring the GE creeping bentgrass field trials unlawful. Kimbrell authored this December 2016 article on the GE bentgrass saga to date.

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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