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GMO food: Hybrid poison grass that kills Texas cattle not genetically modified

Reports that GMO grass suddenly started producing cyanide and killed almost an entire herd of cattle in Texas are only partially true. CBS News reported June 23, 2012 that rancher Jerry Abel of Elgin, near Austin, Texas had been growing Tifton 85, a GMO version of Bermuda grass, for 15 years when the grass suddenly started emitting poisonous cyanide. However, Tifton 85 is not GMO grass, but a hybrid.

Cattle grazing in a field. A Texas farmer lost 15 of 18 cattle when Bermuda grass suddenly started gassing cyanide.
Doug Pensinger/Getty images

According to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension service, Tifton 85 is a hybrid between an African Bermuda grass and Tifton 68, a different hybrid produced in Tifton, Georgia(*). Tifton 85 is highly digestible and has good protein content, something that first drew Mr. Abel to the grass. Hybridization has been practiced by farmers as long as plants have been grown, and is not the same as GMO at all. (Story continues below.)

According to local station KEYE, Abel first knew something was wrong when the cows started bellowing. He thought he was about to witness a calving but instead saw his unfortunate animals staggering around, obviously dying. Others in the area have also since tested their grass and found the same results—the grass has started venting cyanide.

  • True: Cattle died after eating grass that suddenly started venting cyanide [Update: the animals died of prussic acid or hydrogen cyanide poisoning.]
  • False: The grass was genetically modified

Texas is starting to recover from a long drought and this may be a factor in the sudden self-poisoning of the grass. The USDA has dispatched scientists to find out what went wrong.

According to the Animal Health Library, Bermuda grass is high in hydrocyanic acid, which may be concentrated during times of drought. Those fighting the GMO food good fight will need to find another cause, because the only thing in this story that's been genetically modified are the facts.

Update June 24, 2012 at 6:49 p.m.:

Dr. Larry Redmon of the Texas AgriLife Extension has confirmed, by way of this blog post, that the animals in question died of prussic acid poisoning--prussic acid is also known as hydrogen cyanide (HCN).

One of these, Tifton 68, is a stargrass, a species that has potential for generating HCN, but hasn't apparently done so since the time the University of Florida starting using it for grazing in Ona, Florida in 1972.

Several factors resulted in the cattle dying, including abnormal growth patterns after drought and the fact that stressed and hungry cattle were released straight into a pasture previously ungrazed. The most significant remains that Tifton 85 can and does produce HCN--something not previously known.

Facts confirming the status of Tifton 85 as a hybrid, not a GMO, can be found at the links below. For those with cattle grazing Tifton 85, Dr. Redmon offers several tips.

Further resources are listed below.

Sources: CBS News; CBS News; Texas AgriLife A&M Extension; Animal Health Library; Human Genome Project: Genetic modification of food; UGA College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences: Tifton 85

(*) Corrected from Tifton, Texas on 6/24/2012.


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