Public Comment on Genetically Engineered Grass
(Beyond Pesticides, October 28, 2005) In an October 12, 2005 Federal Register notice, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced that it is seeking information to develop an environmental impact statement as part of its consideration of a petition received from Monsanto and the Scotts Company to deregulate genetically engineered (GE) “RoundUp Ready” creeping bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera). USDA will be taking public comments until November 14, 2005.
Environmentalists and some government officials worry that GE grasses are a dangerous technology that could likely lead to herbicide-resistant “superweeds.” Environmentalists are also worried that the technology will promote the overuse of Monsanto’s RoundUp herbicide, which contains the active ingredient glyphosate. Like other many other GE crops, the grass is engineered to survive high doses of Monsanto’s popular toxic herbicide RoundUp. Yet, unlike other products, the creeping bentgrass would be the first ever GE perennial species approved for use.
Creating even greater controversy, EPA scientists published research in the October 5, 2004 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that genes from GE bentgrass pollinated grasses 13 miles away, carried by ultra-light pollen particles. Researcher Lidia Watrud tracked the bentgrass on experimental cropfields in central Oregon. Her research team collected seeds from naturally occurring grasses and from plants they grew in pots to catch any wayward pollen. They grew the seeds and tested the new grass seedlings to see if they were resistant to RoundUp. They found such resistant seedlings as far away as 13 miles, although most were much closer.
While GE products are often shrouded in controversy due to the unknown and potentially harrowing effects they may have on the environment and human health, the bent grass has federal scientists disapproving of the product “marking the first time that government agencies have weighed in publicly against a GE crop,” according to a 2004 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
According to the article, the Forest Service is worried not only that the RoundUp Ready grass could spread herbicide resistance, but that the grass could also infect and fundamentally alter rare or native species with unfamiliar genes. Containment concerns are particularly at issue with a GE perennial species as opposed to a food crop. As varieties of bentgrass grow naturally all over the continent they can easily and quickly spread and crossbreed throughout, affecting other grass species and appearing in various forms as resistant weeds. Although Scotts originally pledged to USDA that it would only sell the grass to golf courses, there is no mention of such limitations in current USDA’s request. Even if the grass was only used on golf courses, containing the grass to a specific area gets at the fundamental problem of GE products.
TAKE ACTION: Let USDA know how you feel about GE bentgrass. To comment, go to www.regulations.gov and, in the “Search for Open Regulations” box, select “Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service” from the agency drop-down menu, then click on “Submit.” In the Docket ID column, select APHIS-2005-0029 to submit or view public comments on APHIS Docket ID 03-101-5. Or by regular mail, send four copies of your comment (an original and three copies) to Docket No. 03-101-5, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Station 3C71, 4700 River Road, Unit 118, Riverdale, MD 20737-1238. Please state that your comment refers to Docket No. 03-101-5.