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The Grass is Not Always Greener

  • A Greener World

iStock_000006968097Small 330It seems that “the green, green grass of home” might not be so “green” in the near future, thanks to a scandalous announcement from the United States Department for Agriculture (USDA) that it won’t regulate a new genetically modified (GM) lawn grass seed developed to be resistant to Monsanto’s toxic Roundup herbicide.

Despite ongoing protests and legal challenges from environmental groups, land managers, federal agencies and other organizations, the USDA’s decision paves the way for the unregulated use of GM lawn seed in U.S. neighborhoods – and a potentially dramatic increase in the use of a toxic herbicide that is increasingly being linked to adverse impacts on human health and the wider environment.

Kentucky bluegrass is one of the most popular domestic grass varieties in the U.S. and is commonly sown for use in gardens, parks and school fields. Scotts Miracle-Gro Company (Scotts) has genetically modified Kentucky bluegrass so that it is resistance to a commonly used herbicide, glyphosate. This means that users can sow the grass seed and use the herbicide to kill off weeds without harming the lawn, and would result in the first ever GM plants available for actual use by the general public. Sounds like a time saving solution? Well, as with any genetically modified ‘quick-fix’, there are significant hidden dangers that we all need to urgently consider.

In a press statement conveniently released just before the busy holiday weekend, the USDA stated that Scotts’ proposals did not require any regulation because the organisms used in generating the GM Kentucky bluegrass were not considered to be plant pests, and that Scotts also did not use a plant pest to genetically engineer the Kentucky bluegrass. In effect, the USDA contended that the GM plant was “substantially equivalent” to non-GM Kentucky bluegrass and therefore did not require more stringent safety testing. In addition, as the GM process involved a single gene insertion, the USDA argued that this did not actually result in the creation of a new species of Kentucky bluegrass. Once again, no additional regulations were deemed necessary.

It seems that, with the helping hand of the USDA, the powerful biotech industry is having its cake and devouring it. Despite using state-of-the-art “biolistics” recombinant DNA technology to splice a single gene from one completely unrelated plant variety (Arabidopsis thaliana) to confer glyphosate herbicide tolerance to another, the USDA does not consider this GM crop to be a ‘new’ plant species, thereby avoiding regulation. Yet Scotts (and other biotech companies for that matter) can also claim full intellectual property rights on their ‘new’ GM plants and exercise complete control over how the seed is used. I call that a ‘win-win’ situation for Big Ag where we, the public and the farmers, are the ultimate losers.

Call me a cynic but it came as no surprise to find out that Scotts is also Monsanto’s exclusive agent for the international marketing and distribution for consumer usage of Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that any future sales of Scott’s GM herbicide-tolerant grass seed will also result in increased sales of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. After all, that’s the whole purpose of Monsanto’s agreement with Scotts: they want to maximize the sales of their toxic herbicide. And with over 50,000 square miles of U.S. lawns out there, our yards and parks represent a huge and hitherto untapped market for the GM industry.

But ever since Scotts first announced its intention to develop GM Kentucky bluegrass seed, environmental campaigners have raised alarm over possible environmental impacts associated with its widespread domestic use. As Kentucky bluegrass is wind-pollinated and readily hybridizes with other grasses, they warned that GM Kentucky bluegrass would easily cross-pollinate and contaminate wild grass relatives, as well as non-GM Kentucky bluegrass grown by organic farmers as livestock feed. They warned that the sowing of GM lawn seed would also inevitably lead to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weed problems and an inability to remove herbicide-resistant weedy grasses from naturally protected areas. They also warned of the associated increased use of glyphosate herbicide and even more toxic pesticides where glyphosate becomes ineffective.

greenberg gmo 448These concerns are well-founded: glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, which is already widely used by farmers with Monsanto as ‘Roundup Ready’ crops, including soy, maize and canola. There are already many unintended consequences of GM crops, with the widespread development of herbicide-resistant weeds, novel pest and soil nutrient problems. And despite early promises that GM farming would dramatically reduce the quantities of herbicides used in agriculture, research now shows that Roundup use in the U.S. has actually increased 15-fold since 1994 when the first herbicide-tolerant GM crops were introduced.

Scientists are now finding that glyphosate is widely present in our soils, waters and on our food as a result of the explosion in its use over the last two and a half decades. More troubling, however, is that independent scientific studies have found that exposure to glyphosate is resulting in a number of potential human health problems, including birth defects from exposure during pregnancy, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a type of blood cancer) and other forms of cancer in animals and humans. Evidence also suggests that glyphosate may affect the nervous system and could even be implicated in Parkinson’s disease. Independent scientists have reported that the agrochemical industry has known about birth malformations in experimental animals caused by even low doses of glyphosate since the early 1990s.

The introduction of GM glyphosate-resistant Kentucky bluegrass will force us all to become subjects of an experiment that should have happened in the USDA’s laboratories – not in our lawns, backyards, in our local neighborhoods, and in parks where our kids play. This experiment will further increase the use of this toxic herbicide, and will inevitably lead to the cross-pollination with wild relatives and the many environmental problems this will entail. The potential human health impacts have yet to be discovered, but I know I would plow my lawn up if I thought this seed was in it. For the sake of a few weeds, are the potential risks of GM lawns really worth it?

Read the Q&A from APHIS here.

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