Contributing writer for Wake Up World
The USDA has announced genetically-engineered Kentucky Bluegrass will not be subjected to federal regulation and oversight. Developed by Scotts Miracle-Gro, the largest US retailer of grass seed, the herbicide-resistant grass was specifically engineered to withstand massive amounts of Roundup — a herbicide created by Monsanto, which has experienced significant public backlash in recent years due to a World Health Organization report that classified its main ingredient, glyphosate, as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
While the USDA decision allows Scotts to sell the grass seed intended for lawns without government approval, the company previously ran into problems when they conducted field trials with another type of genetically modified grass — creeping bentgrass — for golf courses. Considering the earlier GM grass had escaped and spread into the wild on several occasions during these trials, the green light by the USDA for unregulated sale of Kentucky Bluegrass is disturbing — and has critics of genetically engineered crops up in arms.
Biotech Industry Side-Stepping Regulation
“It’s a blatant end-run around regulatory oversight.” ~ George Kimbrell, senior lawyer at the Center for Food Safety
Some, like Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, believe the USDA decision on Kentucky Bluegrass will open the door for other companies to follow suit, essentially rendering the Agriculture Department “out of the game of regulation.”
The crux of the issue involves the rules pertaining to pathogens and parasites in genetically modified crops. Normally, GMO plants are created by inserting a foreign gene using a bacterium that’s known to cause disease in plants. But Scotts intentionally avoided using any substance from plant pests in the creation of their GM bluegrass. The herbicide resistance gene and the genetic on-switch came from other plants and were fired into the grass’s DNA with a gene gun, rather than being carried in by a bacterium.
In September 2010, the company sent a letter to the USDA, arguing that, because of how the grass was created, it shouldn’t be subject to regulation. Not only did the USDA agree with Scotts, but they also refused to regulate the bluegrass as a noxious weed, as requested by the Center for Food Safety.
Apparently, Scotts learned its lesson from its creeping bentgrass (which does contain plant pest material) misadventure. The USDA had sat on the fence for 14 years, refusing to deregulate the grass, citing environmental concerns. However, the agency suddenly changed its stance and quickly dropped all regulations for bentgrass seed in January, 2017.
Scotts was also fined $500,000 in 2007 when bentgrass established itself in the wild after escaping field test sites in central Oregon. Now, the grass has been found growing in southern Oregon, presumably from a test growing site in Idaho. Since Oregon is one of the top grass seed producers in the world, contamination by GMO grass is poised to have devastating consequences for the industry, as well as organic grassfed dairy producers and ranchers.
GMO Grass Field Trials Gone Wrong
“After more than a decade of unsuccessful efforts to eradicate the genetically modified grass it created and allowed to escape, lawn and garden giant Scotts Miracle-Gro now wants to step back and shift the burden to Oregonians and Idahoans.” ~ Jeff Manning, Oregon Live
The altered grass — which is difficult to kill because it’s been modified to withstand heavy applications of Roundup — escaped from test fields in Parma, where it subsequently took root in nearby areas of Idaho and Oregon. Surprisingly, the genetically modified grass began growing in eastern Oregon’s Malheur County, after jumping the Snake River from the test fields in Parma. There are also fears of contamination in the Willamette Valley, the region known as the “grass seed capital of the world” — with a billion-dollar-a-year industry at stake.
“Imagine I had a big, sloppy, nasty Rottweiler, and you lived next door in your perfectly manicured house,” said Bill Buhrig, an Oregon State University extension agent in Malheur County. “Then I dump the dog in your backyard, I take off and now it’s your problem.”
In light of the uncontrollable nature of the grass, the USDA’s deregulation decision is alarming to say the least. Both the Oregon and Idaho’s Departments of Agriculture are against deregulation, as is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which believes there’s a strong chance the commercialization of the grass could drive endangered species to extinction. One example is the Fender’s Blue Butterfly, unique to the Willamette Valley. Critical habitat of the insect would be severely threatened by the grass.
Moreover, scientists from Oregon State University and the Environmental Protection Agency discovered that the GM grass had crossed with wild grasses, passing along its Roundup resistance.
“The more a chemical is used consistently, the more likely that somebody’s weeds will become resistant. That’s standard, agreed-upon science,” said Douglas Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The way that Roundup is used because of transgenic crops exacerbates that problem.”
Currently, we’re seeing a major threat to agriculture because of these virtually indestructible “superweeds”, spawned by excessive use of the herbicide. Monsanto’s Roundup is already the most widely-used herbicide in the world — the commercialization of GM grass will inevitably push these numbers higher, which is exactly what we don’t need.
Numerous researchers have classified the herbicide as the most biologically disruptive chemical in our environment, where it has been linked to a range of health disorders — including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and autism.
Beyond the environmental and health implications, many are concerned about the impact GM grass will have on the organic dairy and grassfed beef industry.
“As these seeds spread and more and more grass takes up that genetic trait, we’ll find organic farmers who want to grass feed their beef, can’t do it because their grass is genetically modified, which is prohibited in organic standards,” said Bill Duesing of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. “GMOs are pollution with a life of its own.” [source]
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