Alarmed by new research showing that pollen from genetically modified grass can spread for miles, federal regulators are questioning the environmental safety of moving biotechnology into golf courses and suburban lawns.
Plans to commercialize creeping bentgrass engineered to resist Roundup herbicide are on hold after the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to make it the first genetically modified plant to undergo an environmental-impact statement, a rigorous study that will take at least a year to complete.
Department officials are expected to officially announce the study this month. Their main concern is whether pollen from the biotech grass can spread to wild relatives and create herbicide-resistant “superweeds” that are more difficult to control.
“There are enough questions out there that we decided to take a closer look,” said Meghan Thomas, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman.
The delay is a setback for Scotts Co., a Marysville, Ohio, lawn and garden company that has invested millions of dollars on its foray into biotechnology.
Scotts and the agribusiness giant Monsanto have developed several genetically modified grasses, including a creeping bentgrass for golf courses that can withstand repeated doses of Roundup, a widely used herbicide made by Monsanto that normally kills both weeds and grasses.
The companies also are working on bioengineered grass that grows slowly and genetically modified flowers that bloom longer and in unusual colors.
Conventional bentgrass is commonly planted on putting greens but is prone to weed infestation, making the plant an ideal candidate for Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant gene, said Bob Harriman, vice president for biotechnology at Scotts.
By planting the genetically modified grass, golf courses could kill weeds with Roundup without harming the bentgrass.
It is highly unlikely that the genetically modified grass would spread its herbicide-resistant gene, Harriman said, because putting greens are cut short and the grass is not allowed to flower.
“If you are paying $50 a pop to play a round of golf, those superintendents are going to be mowing every day to make sure the course is in good condition,” Harriman said.
Scientists have crossbred plants for years to create desirable traits, such as better crop yields, drought tolerance or insect resistance. But this newer form of biological tinkering has prompted concerns from some scientists who worry the plants, particularly those destined for suburban lawns and flower boxes, could have unintended effects.
A new study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that pollen from the genetically modified bentgrass was capable of spreading the Roundup-resistant gene to wild grass as far as 13 miles away from a test farm in Oregon–much farther than previously thought.
Scotts had told the Agriculture Department that its own tests had determined the pollen could travel only about 1,000 feet.
Anne Fairbrother, one of the EPA scientists who conducted the new study, said grass differs from most other plants that have been altered with the Roundup-resistant gene, such as corn, soybeans and cotton.
Unlike the other crops, creeping bentgrass has several biological cousins with which it can cross-pollinate, and it can grow on its own in the wild. Grass also is a perennial that doesn’t need humans to replant it each year.
“It raises questions about the confinement issue,” Fairbrother said.
A panel convened by the National Research Council chided government and industry scientists this year for conducting little research into methods for keeping genetically modified plants and animals from breeding with their natural cousins.
Efforts to commercialize genetically modified grass are opposed by environmental groups and federal land managers. The U.S. Forest Service this year concluded that the Roundup-resistant grass “has the potential to adversely impact all 175 national forests and grasslands.”
Another federal agency, the Bureau of Land Management, said it doesn’t have enough money to fight the genetically modified bentgrass if it becomes established on public lands.
An Oregon seed company decided to pull the plug on its own variety of herbicide-resistant bentgrass three years ago after tests found the genes routinely spread to conventional strains. Instead, the company has been experimenting with a variety engineered to produce sterile seeds.
“Everything we predicted is coming true,” said Crystal Fricker, president of Pure Seed Testing. “It’s not a very good day for the future of genetically modified grass if people start thinking our plants can’t be controlled.”
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By Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune