GM Grass Goes Yard

The grass seed company Scotts Miracle-Gro scottsannounced at its shareholder meeting this past week that they would be having employees testing genetically modified grass seed in their yards.

Is that legal? Yes.  Because it’s been approved as environmentally safe?  Nope; because it falls through the cracks of a rattletrap regulatory system.

When GM (genetically modified) plants arrived, most countries drafted legislation for dealing with the new technology.  The US didn’t, choosing instead to cobble together a system using old agencies and laws, awkwardly dividing oversight among 3 separate agencies depending on what genes were used.  The FDA (Food & Drug Admin) is responsible for GM plants if they are food.  The EPA (Env Protection Agency) is in charge if the plant contains a pesticide like a Bt gene.  The USDA (US Dept. of Agriculture) oversees GM crops made with plant pests — like Agrobacterium (a bacterium that causes a plant disease, used to insert the genes into the target) or the 35S promoter (from a plant virus).

But what if your plant isn’t a food, and you don’t use Agrobacterium (you use the gene gun instead), and you don’t use a pesticidal or disease gene (you use an herbicide-tolerance gene instead), and you don’t use a promoter from a plant virus?  Scotts realized that your plant would slip through the cracks and be totally unregulated.

I wrote a blog on this in Fall 2011, connecting two disturbing dots: the complete evasion of regulatory oversight and the use of gene patents that are used to prevent scientists from even studying GM organisms. (Since I wrote that, an interesting analysis of such regulatory loopholes  appeared in the Vermont Law Review.)

But shouldn’t this GM grass undergo regulatory scrutiny? That’s a touchy question.  Many people are deeply troubled by our slow-pitch regulatory framework, while at the same time a favorite talking point among GMO boosters  is the overabundance of regulation.  But why don’t we just consider Scott’s own past ecological misadventures with GM grass:

In 2002bentgrass, Scotts planted 162 ha. of Roundup-Ready (glyphosate-tolerant) bentgrass in their seed production facility in central Oregon.  Bentgrass, Agrostis stolonifera, is the stuff on golf greens, but away from the golf course it’s often a weed.  Pollen from the GM grass got into the Oregon wind and crossed with Agrostis plants up to 21 km away (as reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

After being fined by the USDA (the maximum possible, $500,000), Scotts scrambled to eradicate all the feral glyphosate-resistant plants in the area, trying to enlist help from local landowners via newspaper ads.  They failed; ecologists found that even 3 years after the seed production was stopped, 62% of bentgrass plants tested in the area were transgenic.

Then in 2012, the plot thickened: in a study in Molecular Ecology entitled “Crossing the divide”, ecologists Zapiola and Mallory-Smith reported that feral GM bentgrass was hybridizing with plants from a different genus, rabbitfoot grass (Polypogon monspeliensis).  This is a big deal, notes ecologist Alison Snow: it’s the first transgenic intergeneric hybrid, it represents a new herbicide-tolerant weed, and it raises questions about the efficacy of the procedures for preventing unintended gene flow of GM plants.

(The Oregon bentgrass joins a long list of transgene escapes.)

The GM grass that Scotts employees are going to be testing in their yards is different than the bentgrass; it’s Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) and the hope is that it will be easier to contain because its pollen is heavier.

Let’s hope, because there is no control over it.


Academic References
Montgomery, Emily  2012 Genetically Modified Plants and Regulatory  Loopholes and Weaknesses Under the Plant  Protection Act Vermont Law Review 37:351-379.
Snow, Allison 2012  Illegal gene flow from transgenic creeping bentgrass: the saga continues. Molecular Ecology 21(19):4663-4664.
Zapiola, M. L., C. K. Campbell, M. D. Butler and C. A. Mallory-Smith  2008 Escape and establishment of transgenic glyphosate-resistant creeping bentgrass Agrostis stolonifera in Oregon, USA: a 4-year study. Journal of Applied Ecology 45(2):486-494.
Zapiola, MarÍA L. and Carol A. Mallory-Smith  2012 Crossing the divide: gene flow produces intergeneric hybrid in feral transgenic creeping bentgrass population. Molecular Ecology 21(19):4672-4680.
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11 Responses to GM Grass Goes Yard

  1. Roberts says:

    What effects will the escaped GMO bentgrass have on the ecosystem? Do they know if it will be harmful?

    • Glenn says:

      Nope; no one knows. Of course gene flow from crops to weeds happens even without GMO’s, and it has caused some devastating problems. But GM technologies open the doors to a vastly wider range of genes to be incorporated into plants. Whether a GM plant is more or less likely to create gene flow, and whether transgenic traits are more or less likely to remain in wild populations, depends on the plant and the GM trait, as Ellstrand (2001) points out. Long-term effects on ecosystems are simply unknown.

      Ellstrand, N. 2001 When Transgenes Wander, Should We Worry? Plant Physiology 125(4):1543-1545.

  2. Robert Alvarez says:

    Thanks for pointin g this out and actually linking to the scientific articles.

  3. Rick Brown says:

    I don’t see what the danger is with the Kentucky bluegrass. People plant it in their yards anyway. I wouldn’t assume it is dangerous.

    • Glenn says:

      I wouldn’t assume either. The point is that the science isn’t there to give us a basis for discussing its ecological impacts (and it probably won’t be there). And note that Kentucky bluegrass (actually an Old World species) is an invasive in many situations.

    • It is destroying prairie ecology and is considered an invasive and noxious weed in many ecossytems. Look up stuff through the forestry departments and EPA for minnesota, north dakota etc. You will find that it is dangerous…and bloody expensive to eradicate and now we let Scott’s make it stronger and more invasive….

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  6. P. Walker says:

    I read this and the earlier blog but don’t understand — the USDA checks GMO’s if they are made with a plant pest? Why would Monsanto use a plant pest, I thought the point was to fight off plant pests. And if they don’t use a plant pest, then it probably should be regulated less closely, right?

    • Glenn says:

      Agrobacterium is a soil bacteria that causes a plant disease (crown gall disease) by actually inserting some of its genes into the chromosomes of the plant . Then when the genes express, the plant (usually a tree) creates a lump called a gall that produces bacteria food. Biologists take out the gall-producing genes and insert other genes, and then let Agrobacterium do its thing. I wouldn’t say Agrobacterium itself is inherently dangerous, although it does sometimes insert DNA in unpredictable ways. The other major way to make a GM crop is to use “bombardment” with a gene gun, which can also insert DNA unpredictably. The fact that Agrobacterium-mediated transformation is regulated but bombardment-mediated transformation is not is ludicrous.

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