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Roundup-Ready bluegrass is coming to a neighborhood near you

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Scotts, the well-known lawn seed and chemical company, has developed a genetically modified breed of Kentucky bluegrass that is a "deeper green" than typical lawn grass and is resistant to the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup. In 2011, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said that it would not regulate this GMO, because the genes injected via a gene gun [see page 140] came from another plant species, rather than from a bacterium. This decision was made despite evidence that grass spreads its seeds with remarkable efficiency, endangering the purity of neighboring lawns and crowding out agricultural plants grown on nearby farms; in fact, Scotts discontinued a field trial of its GMO bentgrass because it proved so difficult to contain its seed drift.

So where is Scotts testing this new grass? All over America: on the lawns of Scotts employees. The specific genetic engineering of Roundup-Ready bluegrass enables the grass to resist the powerful herbicide Roundup, made by Monsanto. This means that when a person plants the grass, he can subsequently douse his lawn repeatedly with Roundup, killing dandelions and other weeds, but leaving the bluegrass unharmed. What might this explosion of Roundup on the lawns of America mean for the neighborhoods in which Roundup-Ready bluegrass is deployed?

Among other harms, Roundup's active ingredient, glyphosate, has been linked to:

The type of disease risk currently known only to agricultural workers in the United States can now be shared by suburban homeowners and their children. And that's not all: repeated spraying of Roundup is likely to lead to the development of glyphosate resistance among weeds and other undesirable plants, as herbicide development is basically an arms race against nature that man cannot possibly win.

It's difficult to find much information on the USDA's decision not to regulate the Scotts GMO bluegrass, because the link to the decision redirects to the USDA's main news page. However, a PDF is available here; it includes some answers to frequently asked questions (if the public actually knew enough about what is going on to ask a question) regarding the GMO bluegrass.

A few items about the USDA PDF are striking. One is the statement that "the glyphosate tolerance is caused by a single gene insertion, which does not create a new species of Kentucky bluegrass, meaning it is biologically the same as its traditional counterpart." This assertion does not bear scrutiny. If it were "biologically the same" as traditional bluegrass then the GMO bluegrass would not be resistant to Roundup. It's different, which is why Scotts expects to sell as much as one billion dollars' worth of the stuff.

Another noteworthy assertion is the USDA's statement that although the GMO bluegrass "meets the definition of a 'noxious weed,'" the USDA is not going to regulate it as one. Clearly, the bluegrass is a weed, as it contains a gene sequence taken from a weed [see page 139]. However, the portion of federal law that deals with weed regulation (7 CFR 360) allows the USDA to pick and choose the weeds that it will regulate. The USDA says that "Kentucky bluegrass has not been found to cause impacts significant enough to warrant regulation at the federal level." This present lack of significant impact is unsurprising, because nationwide field tests have not yet begun. One might observe, for example, that the nuclear weapons tested at Los Alamos did not have a significant impact until they were used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's not a matter of debate, however, whether they had a significant impact once deployed on a global scale.

A longtime ally of biotech companies, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack has repeatedly earned plaudits from the biotechnology industry. In fact, he gave the keynote address at the biotechnology lobbying group's annual conference just a few years ago. It is unlikely that the current administration's USDA will choose to take any action that could interfere with the continued economic success of agribusiness firms and makers of related chemical and biological products. The toll on human health from this latest experiment have yet to be seen.

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