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Rural Oregon has a weedy mess on its hands

On GMO and seed misdeeds, has the punishment fit the crime?


In September 2012, the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company was fined $4 million for illegally applying pesticides that were known to be toxic to birds — to a line of birdseed. The company pled guilty to adding the two pesticides to its seed to prevent insect infestation during storage, even though the Environmental Protection Agency prohibited their use.

Scotts sold the birdseed illegally for two years, and ignored warnings from its own employees for six months before it finally recalled the product in March 2008. By then, Scotts had sold more than 70 million units of seed, according to the Justice Department, and committed 11 criminal violations of federal law. The $4 million criminal fine was the largest to date under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. A subsequent $6 million in civil fines and $2 million on environmental projects were similarly unprecedented. Yet added together, that $12 million or so was a mere kernel in the seed silo for the company, which a year later reported a net sales of $2.82 billion and adjusted income of $174.4 million.

A few years earlier — presumably with similar dedication to the bottom line — the company had developed a golf-course grass that was resistant to Roundup, the controversial, potentially carcinogenic herbicide produced by Monsanto, a biotechnology company with total assets last year of $8.65 billion. In its attempt to build a better putting green, Scotts lost control of its experiment, allowing the wind to spread the modified plant far afield, literally, in eastern Oregon. The U.S. Department of Agriculture later fined Scotts $500,000 for the fiasco. As writer Julia Rosen reports in this issue’s cover story, that plant, a modified version of creeping bentgrass, is now a headache for eastern Oregonians and a pointed demonstration of a dysfunctional regulatory system.

Brian Calvert, editor-in-chief
Brooke Warren/High Country News

For these two misadventures, which blatantly ignored any non-commercial value in the natural world, Scotts paid about $13 million, a touch more than half the compensation it paid its chief executive officer and board chairman, James Hagedorn, in 2017. So while in some ways this cover story is a question about regulatory and corporate accountability, it also forces us to ask whether we’ve established a society that properly reflects our values. Has the punishment fit the crime here? After all, this obdurate turf-grass is now a part of Oregon’s landscape, an outcast child of mega-corp parents and a portent of worse to come. To top it all off, thanks to political wrangling and regulatory shortcomings, Scotts is no longer on the hook for bentgrass containment — leaving a rural community with a mess on its hands and Scotts with all the more money to work on its next miraculous product.