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The Frankenlawn Update: Where’s the Outcry to Stop GMO Grass Seed?

THE PUBLIC NEEDS TO STAND UP NOW (see below)

This logo comes from a Facebook page dedicated to stopping Miracle Gro from selling genetically modified grass seed.

THE APPROVAL OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED grass seed, or more correctly stated “the news of the approval,” is apparently having the muted impact it intended.

Announced by the United States Department Agriculture back on the afternoon of July 1 — when most people were shopping for beer and burgers for the long holiday weekend — the word that the government was allowing Scotts Miracle Gro to further contaminate our lawns SHOULD HAVE BEEN front-page news. The story about the world’s largest retailer of legal lawn poisons being handed a license to sell even more Roundup SHOULD HAVE been the top story for whomever was filling in for Brian Williams that night.

Instead, the year’s most shocking environmental story was relegated to the blogosphere and, to his credit, Andrew Pollack at the New York Times.

THE BACKGROUND

It might sound like hyperbole to put this story ahead of, say, the epic drought, or the decline of the oceans or this year’s earlier bombshell that the federal government was going to allow genetically modified alfalfa. Certainly all those issues are having more impact today and tomorrow. But what about next year and beyond when Miracle Gro will be allowed to sell Roundup Ready lawn grass — unless we all stand up and do something about it?

This “Miracle GMO” lawn seed story has been unfolding for more than a decade, ever since Scotts Miracle Gro revealed its plans to test its new genetically modified creeping bentgrass in Oregon in 2001. Despite the protests of the environmental community back then, Scotts was allowed to plant test GMO seed, which then predictably escaped the confines of the trial farms and cross-pollinated with other related grasses in the wild. Since pollen from grasses typically rides the wind from plant to plant, this kind of “gene flow” is unavoidable.

The government had the good sense five years ago to block Scotts’ creeping bentgrass experiment gone amok, and even fined the company several hundred thousand dollars for letting the untamable cow out of the proverbial barn. A story out late last year showed that the government is still spending lots of time and money running from ditch to ditch in the Pacific Northwest to dig up Scotts’ runaway grass.

Back then, in November of 2010, however, Scotts sounded strangely undaunted by the government’s slap on the wrist — as if the chemical giant knew something we didn’t. This year, on July 1, the end game was revealed: the bullish company had convinced the impotent matadors at the USDA to wave the towel, step aside and let the mutant cash cow rush past.

Make no mistake, this deal for Scotts is potentially huge. Whereas bentgrass is grown on golf course greens and a few home lawns in the Northwest, Kentucky bluegrass is grown virtually everywhere in the temperate climates of North America. North of the line that runs from DC in the East to San Francisco in the West, bluegrass is the predominant species on our soccer and football fields, on our home lawns and, in fact, in many farmer’s fields where livestock graze. In the view of Jim Hagedorn, the CEO at Miracle Gro, all that bluegrass will be his one day, to be sprayed several times a year by the toxic weed-killer known as Roundup — which is already his to sell, by the way, given his long-standing retail agreement with the manufacturer, Monsanto.

WHY THIS IS SO BAD . . .

Entire books have been written about the concerns related to genetically modified plants, but this GMO lawn issue essentially boils down to two major factors: 1) undoubtedly more spraying of Roundup, which has been linked to everything from cancer to birth defects and beyond; and 2) the modified bluegrass will most assuredly escape lawns and soccer fields and jump to fields where animals forage. The USDA’s secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, admitted as much in a letter he wrote to Scotts essentially asking the company to self-regulate its latest product.

This comes from the man in charge of protecting our food supply:

“The USDA recognizes that if this GE variety were to be commercially released, producers wishing to grow non-GE Kentucky bluegrass will likely have concerns related to gene flow between the GE variety and non-GE Kentucky bluegrass. Exporters of Kentucky bluegrass seed, growers of non-GE Kentucky bluegrass seed, and those involved in the use of non-GE Kentucky bluegrass in pastures will likely have concerns about the loss of their ability to meet contractual obligations.

“USDA therefore strongly encourages Scotts to discuss these concerns with various stakeholders during these early stages of research and development of this GE Kentucky bluegrass variety and thereby develop appropriate and effective stewardship measures to minimize commingling and gene flow between GE and non-GE Kentucky bluegrass.”

Minimize commingling? That statement is simply beyond absurd. You’d have to build a wall as far and as high as the wind itself can blow if you want to stop genetically modified bluegrass from contaminating the bluegrass that’s growing all around us. Even if you would never even think of spraying Roundup on your own lawn when this mutant bluegrass inevitably shows up, you simply must understand that we’re setting ourselves up for the day when all of our animals are foraging on genetically modified material. The health implications of this — for the animals and for us — are predicted to be catastrophic by many scientists.

THE LEGAL ISSUES

Scotts deftly got around the existing laws that regulate genetic modification of plants and animals with clever legal maneuvering. Operating under The Federal Plant Pest Act of 1957, the USDA has had the power to restrict the introduction of organisms that might harm plants. It had used this power to regulate GMO crops until this July 1 announcement. The reasoning is that most GMO crops qualify as “plant pests” because the DNA from natural plant pathogens and microbial material — such as bacteria and fungi — had been the primary source of material used in the genetic engineering of various plants up to now.

Since Scotts had genetically engineered its bluegrass using genes taken from rice, corn and the Arabidopsis plant, from the mustard family, the company asked the USDA that its new GMO grass not be considered a plant pest under this 54-year-old law. The agency, shockingly or not, agreed.

The USDA’s other jurisdiction in this matter concerns invasive weeds. In other words, if a plant such as purple loosestrife or asiatic bittersweet shows that it roguishly moves where it’s unwanted, the USDA can play sheriff and place the plant on its Most Unwanted list. Folks can’t thereafter legally plant the stuff.

But since Scotts’ new mutant bluegrass hasn’t yet proven itself to be a weed, and existing bluegrass is not considered a weed, the USDA acquiesced to the position that it had no jurisdiction over Scotts’ new product.

To those of us in the environmental community, this is the same kind of legal wrangling that let O.J. and a certain mother walk free. It doesn’t, in other words, pass the common sense test. Scotts’ genetically modified Kentucky bluegrass will cross-pollinate with existing Kentucky bluegrass — there’s no way it won’t — but because of a legal loophole our government can’t, or won’t, do anything about it.

But that’s under existing laws. What about a new law that bans the genetic modification of plants that are wind pollinated? Can we get a politician to propose it? What about a law that bans the genetic modification of perennial plants that come back year after year? That could score some political points. Genetic modification of annual plants like corn, soy and canola at least leaves open the possibility that we can put the cow back in barn. We could conceivably eliminate these annual crops when enough consensus evolves that these crops are bad. But in the case of perennial grasses like alfalfa and bluegrass, there’s no turning back — EVER.

We need to put our government to its best use and implore our Congressional leaders to do something about it. Immediately.

WHAT WE NEED TO DO

In this world of social media, the possibilities are almost endless. You can write Letters to the Editor, letters for your elected officials, or start your own blog. I did manage to find a Facebook page that’s taking dead aim at this issue, but as of this writing it has a whopping 28 “Likes:” http://www.facebook.com/pages/Boycott-Scotts-Miracle-Gmo-Products/234083576622986.

Another strategy would be to call Scotts and demand the company put an end to this nonsense. There’s no way in hell that Jim Hagedorn would ever voluntarily walk away from a dollar, but you can get the satisfaction of making your voice heard. Here’s the Scotts Miracle Gro number: 888-270-3714.

Then there’s Thomas Vilsack and Barack Obama. All of this potential tragedy has happened on their watch. Don’t stand for it: http://action.foodandwaterwatch.org/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=5450.

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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