GMO Grass Seed and now Alfalfa – Another death knell to plant, animal, human life
by Anne Wilder-Chamberlain
On July 8, 2000, David Barboza of the New York Times reported about how the Scotts Seed Company in Marysville, Ohio, was planning to introduce genetically modified “Round-up Ready” grass to our environment. Barboza called the concept, “a suburbanite’s dream come true.”
“The grass,” he wrote, “which Scotts hopes will eventually carpet every lawn and golf course around the world, is genetically altered to withstand applications of the most potent weed killers and remain healthy and green.”
Apparently Barboza is not aware that grass is one of the most prevalent “weeds” on the planet, one which farmers, who already depend on “Round-up Ready” crops, would not like to see move into their fields. But the purveyors of GM seed do not ever see any farther than their own bottom line, and the effect of their seed on wildlife and other people is of little or no consequence. Scotts executives hoped the company would reap profits of $10 billion by 2003.
“Scotts,” said Barboza, “the world’s largest maker of lawn and turf products, has other varieties in the works as well. One, nicknamed ‘low mow’ by company scientists, has been designed to grow at a slower pace, thereby reducing the need for a lawn mower. Other strains could be drought-resistant, or bred to flourish in the winter.
“The company is also working on genetically modified roses and other flowers that will bloom longer than the ones found in nature.
“Scientists at Scotts have already developed genetically altered petunias and geraniums in laboratories in St. Louis. Scotts says it will develop an even larger arsenal of ‘smart’ plants with longer lasting blooms, different colors, and in some cases built-in pesticide.
“And some scientists at Scotts are even talking about someday developing grasses in different colors,” he added.
The biotechnology center at Rutgers University is working with Scotts and Monsanto to develop the grasses. “You could also make novelty grasses. You might put a luminescent gene in so that your grass might glow,” stated Rutgers biotech director Peter Day.
“These products will give you more beautiful lawns and gardens,” said Mark R. Schwartz, head of the branded plants group at Scotts.
Scotts, best known for its lawn fertilizer, Ortho pesticides and Miracle Gro plant food, became involved in biotechnology in 1998 when it formed an alliance with Monsanto to produce genetically altered grass and ornamental plants. Scotts also has a license to sell Roundup, reported Barboza.
Working to bring genetically altered grass and flowers to market, Bob Harriman, the company’s chief scientist and a former Monsanto employee, stated that once outcry over genetic engineering subsides, Scotts and other companies will churn out countless varieties of grasses and ornamental flowers.
When the Scotts products do come to market, the company said it won’t use the word “biotech” on the labels. “We’d call them superior plants,” said Charles M. Berger, the company’s chief executive.
Scotts claims to be in the race to create the raw material for perfect lawns. “That’s how we make money, beautifying the world,” said Berger. But had he seen the chemical damage to the bare feet of Paraguayan children who have walked across Round-up treated fields, he might not have spoken so enthusiastically.
The notion of blanketing the world with genetically altered grass
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), with more than 14,000 members, petitioned the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) to suspend all field tests that Scotts is conducting on the new grasses.
“This is going to put biotech in everyone’s backyard,” says Jeremy Rifkin, a longtime opponent of biotechnology. “It’s going to open up a national debate, because everyone has a lawn.”
“We are highly concerned with the use of genetically modified plants because they could potentially affect the whole ecosystem of native plants,” said ASLA President Janice Cervelli Schach. “We want bodies outside of Monsanto and Scotts to assess these risks.”
Scotts, trying to avoid the maelstrom that erupted in Europe over genetically altered crops, claimed it moved cautiously, conducting intensive research under the oversight of federal regulators to ensure safety. The USDA regulated where Scotts could plant the experimental grass, the corporation claimed, and Scotts had to obtain permission before it could transport the grass anywhere.
However, on November 26, 2007, in response to an administrative complaint filed against it, the Scotts Company, LLC entered into a settlement agreement with APHIS (USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) to resolve violations of the APHIS’s biotechnology regulations (7 CFR 340).
APHIS alleged that Scotts:
- Failed to comply with performance standards for field trials of glyphosate-tolerant creeping bentgrass (GTCB) conducted under notifications from 1999 to 2005 at multiple test sites located in 19 states,
- Violated supplemental permit conditions for a 2005 Idaho field trial of GTCB by failing to remove immature seed heads, and
- Failed to conduct a 2003 Oregon field trial in a manner that ensured the GTCB and/or its offspring would not persist in the environment.
In a related incident, APHIS also alleged that Scotts improperly moved GE Kentucky bluegrass seed heads. Under the settlement agreement, Scotts agreed to pay a civil penalty of $500,000, and to conduct three public workshops to present best management practices and technical guidance for other potential developers of GE plants and other interested parties on the identification and prompt resolution of biotechnology incidents. The workshops were to take place in Oregon, to address current and ongoing efforts to monitor and destroy GTCB in and around the Oregon Control District, at a national conference of seed producers, and at a location selected by Scotts, with APHIS approval.
Scotts has reportedly implemented measures to comply with performance standards and permit conditions related to these allegations. In addition, Scotts is carrying out monitoring and mitigation actions in Oregon to locate and remove the regulated GE material that was accidentally released during the 2003 field trial after which Scotts failed to notify APHIS. The current allegations address the ongoing persistence in the environment related to the accidental release.
Outraged Americans respond
Environmental activists, already concerned about the genetically modified crops now growing on more than 70 million acres of American farmland, have attacked research laboratories experimenting with genetically altered grass and trees out of knowledge that the plants will fundamentally alter the environment. Scotts executives said their Round-up Ready creeping bent grass could drastically reduce costs and maintenance at golf courses, and a drought-tolerant variety could reduce the amount of water needed to keep the turf healthy. But the Anarchist Golfing Association sabotaged test plots, causing more than $300,000 worth of damage at an Oregon research center that was testing the genetically altered grass.
Activists also vandalized a university lab in Minnesota and torched a research site belonging to Boise Cascade, the giant paper company, which had been experimenting with genetically altered trees.
Crystal Fricker, president of Pure Seed Testing Inc., a grass seed company in Hubbard, Oregan said that her company made some troubling discoveries about how widely the GE grass pollen dispersed. “We were doing risk assessment and we learned pollen can flow [up to] 3,000 feet. And it cross-fertilizes,” mating with different strains of grass and creating a new genetically modified breed.
Others are speaking out against the latest form of genetic experimentation, GMO alfalfa.
The Center for Food Safety reported on February 4, 2010 that the USDA has not taken the concerns of non-GE alfalfa farmers, organic dairies, or consumers seriously. USDA’s preliminary determination was to once again deregulate GE alfalfa without any limitations or protections for farmers or the environment. The USDA completely dismissed the fact that contamination threatens export and domestic markets of organic meat and dairy products, and, incredibly, claims that there is no evidence that consumers care about such GE contamination.
This would be the first perennial crop to be approved for genetic modification and release. Alfalfa, the fourth largest crop in the U.S., is open-pollinated by bees. With bees traveling 4-6 miles, they can potentially spread the patented, foreign DNA to distant conventional and organic crops. The potential for biological contamination from a neighbor’s field, even miles away, threatens the livelihood of organic farmers, dairies and other livestock producers. U.S. organic standards prohibit genetic engineering. Buffer strips and other devices required with other GE crops have proven useless. Yet, the USDA Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) maintains that avoiding GE contamination would be the responsibility of organic producers.
The USDA claims that Monsanto’s seed contracts require measures sufficient to prevent genetic contamination, and that there is no evidence to the contrary. But in the CFS lawsuit requiring this reversal of its 2005 deregulation of the GE alfalfa, the Court found that contamination had already occurred in the fields of several Western states.
As a perennial, it is very likely that genetically engineered volunteers will escape from farm fields and/or be scattered along roadsides from harvest and transport equipment. Escaped or feral plants will live on for years producing GE pollen to contaminate non-GE alfalfa.
Public comment was extended until March 3, 2010. As of yet, the USDA’s determination has not been published. The USDA has so far deregulated 79 GM plants varieties.
Sources: "Suburban Genetics: Scientists Searching for a Perfect Lawn", By David Barboza, New York Times (7/8/00), www.aphis.usda.gov and www.cornucopia.org.