Biotech companies engineer a ‘superweed’
Genetically engineered golf course turf could creep to public lands
Not far from the Crooked River National Grassland, 40 miles north of Bend, Ore., sits a 600-acre plot of creeping bentgrass. For two years, The Scotts Company, a well-known lawn care company and fertilizer manufacturer, has studied this grassy patch, noting with satisfaction the trait that makes this particular strain of grass special — its genetically engineered resistance to the herbicide Roundup.
Scotts hopes to sell the "Roundup Ready" creeping bentgrass to golf courses around the country. The company, along with Monsanto — the St. Louis-based biotech company that manufactures Roundup — says the grass would revolutionize the way golf courses manage weeds. But the proposal has sparked concerns from a spectrum of government agencies and watchdog groups.
Genetically engineered (GE) crops have been a contentious issue since 1994, when farmers planted the first GE seeds in the United States. But Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass is the first GE crop to have significant numbers of wild relatives — 23 in the U.S. — which can pick up engineered genes through wind-borne pollen. "(Bentgrasses) are all over the place," says Norman Ellstrand, a veteran plant geneticist at the University of California, Riverside.
That’s a concern for both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which wrote a report detailing their fears about the possibility of the Roundup-resistant gene escaping from golf courses to public lands. In Oregon alone, there are 19 other species of bentgrass, from the coast to the drier grasslands such as Crooked River. "(Bentgrass) can be a significant problem in some local situations, especially in riparian corridors," where it can crowd out native plants, says Wayne Owen, leader of the Forest Service’s national botany and rare plant program.
According to Gina Ramos, senior weeds specialist for the BLM, if the Roundup resistant gene escaped, the agencies could have a super-weed on their hands, one that requires herbicides that are more toxic than those — such as Roundup — they currently use.
It’s all in the genes
Monsanto has faced powerful opposition to its development of genetically engineered varieties of corn and soybeans, which include a Roundup-resistant protein originally found in a species of bacteria. Last summer, the company shelved development of Roundup Ready wheat for the second time in two years. Fearing a collapse of the export market due to Japanese and European reluctance to buy GE wheat, U.S. and Canadian farmers put up enough of a fight to force "a corporation to face reality," says Kiki Hubbard of the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that helped organize the farmers.
Opponents also raised concerns that the Roundup-resistant gene could be transferred to wheat’s wild relative, jointed goatgrass, a species the Washington State Crop Improvement Association called "the most serious weed problem facing wheat growers."
Creeping bentgrass could pose an equally serious threat. It’s a perennial grass, as opposed to annuals like corn, which die after a year. Thus, bentgrass is able to pollinate year after year, increasing its gene transfer potential. It also reproduces asexually by growing sideways through horizontal shoots — the trait that earned the species its name.
Engineered genes released in pollen could drift to nonengineered creeping bentgrass in greater amounts than the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds acceptable, according to a 1998-99 study for another grass company called Turf-Seed. The study, which showed that these transfers could happen between plants over 4,000 feet apart, was enough to convince the company to start developing a sterile strain of bentgrass. An EPA study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month found gene flow up to 13 miles from the test plots in Oregon.
"Pollen is impossible to contain," says Turf-Seed president Bill Rose.
Jim King, director of communications for The Scotts Company, says golf courses mow down their grass before it ever flowers, a practice that should limit the potential for gene transfer. Each golf course would sign a contract with Scotts that lays out management responsibilities.
But those contracts are only as good as their enforcement, says Cheryl Wilen, integrated pest management advisor for Southern California with University of California-Davis: "Is (Scotts) going to (monitor) every plot?"
Once biotech genes transfer to non-GE plants, they can quickly spread. In Mexico, importation of GE corn for food is legal, but planting it is not. In the absence of oversight, however, farmers planted GE corn. Now, some scientists estimate that native species of corn in eight Mexican states have GE genes, and the spread was presumably caused by wind pollination, which hopscotched from farm to farm.
Paradoxically, both Scotts and Monsanto say their grass is environmentally friendly. King says that with the Roundup-resistant grass, instead of spraying large sections of the green with Roundup and starting anew, the golf course manager could "spot spray" unwanted bluegrass. "It’s pretty environmentally benign," says King, who says a proprietary Scotts-funded study found that 20 percent less chemicals would be used on golf courses.
However, with other Roundup-resistant crops, the opposite seems to be true: In a 2001 study using USDA data, Charles Benbrook of the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center found that Roundup use per acre actually increased with Roundup-resistant crops. When farmers relied solely on Roundup rather than varying their herbicides, weeds quickly developed natural resistance to the herbicide, spurring farmers to use even more of it.
Scotts and Monsanto submitted a petition to the USDA in April 2003, asking the agency to allow them to sell the genetically engineered grass. The usual turnaround for petitions of this nature is 180 days. So far, it has been over a year. In late September, the USDA announced that it will complete an environmental impact statement on the petition.
The writer is a reporter for the Santa Fe (New Mexico) Reporter.
The Scotts Company 937-578-5622
Wayne Owen at the U.S. Forest Service 202-205-1279