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Scotts’ Mutant Grass Continues to Escape

Scientist Blows Whistle on Genetically Modified Rogue Plants

Jim Hagedorn, the CEO of Scotts Miracle-Gro, has admitted publicly on several occasions that the current system of lawn care is unsustainable. We’re applying too many fertilizers, made from fossil fuels, and too much water, an ever-precious resource. He and I actually agree on that point — even if we don’t agree on whether or not the weed and insect killers he sells are dangerous.

We also don’t agree on how to limit the water and the fertilizer. Folks like us in the organic lawn care world advocate a natural approach, utilizing natural fertilizers and soil amendments that are derived from sustainable sources. Their use, in turn, vastly reduces the need for water.

Hagedorn, on the other hand, would prefer to genetically modify all grass plants so they grow shorter, more slowly and require less water. In his vision of the lawn future, the only necessary weed killer would be Roundup, which his genetically mutant grass would resist and therefore survive when the Roundup is sprayed.

These new genetic traits, made possible through the ever-expanding breakthroughs in bio-tech gene gun technology, are a no-brainer to Hagedorn, who has invested tens of millions of dollars along with his partners at Monsanto.

“I’d like to see biotech in every backyard,” he told the magazine Wired in 2006:

For a few years, Scotts had the government’s permission to test bio-tech lawn grass in Oregon. Then, in 2007, the government slapped Scotts with a $500,000 fine because the grass had escaped its test plots back in 2003. This news of the escaped grass scared the living hell out of environmentalists who know anything about how grass grows. Because grass is pollinated by the wind, its genes are impossible to contain to one area. Because grass also readily cross-pollinates with related plants, the genetics within grass are easily passed to related species.

In other words, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario whereby your neighbor would one-day buy into Scotts’ genetically modified world and replant his or her entire lawn with the mutated grass. Inevitably, the mutated genes would cross-pollinate with the grass plants on your lawn — and you would be growing genetically modified grass whether you wanted it, or not.

Sound far-fetched? It’s absolutely not. This phenomenon has been happening to farmers for years. In many highly contested court cases, farmers have been sued by Monsanto for growing farm crops with genetically inserted traits — which are patented and owned by Monsanto — without buying the seed from Monsanto. The farmers acquired the seed simply by saving it from their own fields that had unwittingly cross-pollinated with a neighboring field. Farmers have actually been forced to pay huge fines for unknowingly growing seed that contained Monsanto’s genes.


So would Jim Hagedorn one day sue you for having his patented grass genes on your lawn? You couldn’t put that past a man who openly says “business is war.”

Right now, however, his biggest problem is that his technology is still stirring the ire out West where his bio-tech experiment grass is leap-frogging from Oregon to Idaho, and back. Scientists are being forced to run from ditch to ditch and field to field, many miles apart, to try to contain a Scotts experiment gone amok.

The issue of Scotts’ escaped grass had largely been quiet in the last couple of years, until Carol Mallory-Smith, an Oregon State University weed scientist, blew the whistle. She had told Scotts about the problem, along with the USDA and Oregon Department of Agriculture, but they all kept quiet, apparently fearing they would alarm the public. An article in the Capital Press brought all this to light yesterday:

In that same article, Scotts spokesman Jim King said his company remains undaunted by the latest revelation of the genetic escape of his company’s grass — and that it still expects the government to remove any restrictions from genetically modified lawn grass “sooner than later.”

If you can picture, for a minute, someone from Scotts sitting down in front of a legislator and saying, “We have this new technology that makes grass grow slower and lower, without requiring much water and less toxic weed killers,” you have to imagine the average legislator is going to sit up and listen attentively.

It’s our job to be in that room, too, and say, “No way in hell.”

Do we want the genes for slow-growing then cross-pollinating with, say, field grass for cows and horses? That’s just one of a million questions we could ask. People have written entire books about the problems with genetically modifying organisms, especially those that cross-pollinate as freely as grass.

Erwin Chargoff, the eminent biochemist often referred to as the father of molecular biology, once referred to genetic engineering as “a molecular Auschwitz” and warned that the technology of genetic engineering poses a greater threat to the world than the advent of nuclear technology.

“I have the feeling that science has transgressed a barrier that should have remained inviolate,” he wrote in his autobiography, Heraclitean Fire. Sensing the “awesome irreversibility” of experiments like Scotts’ mutant grass, Chargoff warned that; “…you cannot recall a new form of life… It will survive you and your children and your children’s children. An irreversible attack on the biosphere is something so unheard-of, so unthinkable to previous generations, that I could only wish that mine had not been guilty of it.”

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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