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Research Finds Genetically Engineered Genes Drifting Miles
(Beyond Pesticides, September 22, 2004)
US government officials announced yesterday findings of genes from genetically engineered (GE) bentgrass pollinating grasses 13 miles away, carried by ultra-light pollen particles, according to Reuters. The research was published in this week’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and conducted by Lidia Watrud et al.

The subject of Watrud’s research was a form of creeping bentgrass genetically modified to resist adverse effects of the herbicide glyphosate, developed by Scotts Company. Since the GE grass is resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup (active ingredient glyphosate), it allows farmers and other users of the grass to broadcast spray the chemical without worrying about damaging the grass. Environmentalists have expressed concern over the resulting increased volume of toxic pesticide placed in the ecosystem. Another concern is the drift of the modified genes resulting in contamination of other grasses. This is exactly what Watrud had found. Her research offers the strongest evidence yet of the difficulty in controlling the spread and interbreeding of GE.

Watrud tracked the bentgrass on experimental cropfields in central Oregon. Reuters reports that the researchers 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.

The problem with crossbreeding of drifting GE genes involves the development of “superweeds,” which can happen when an herbicide resistant crop gene crosses with a weedy relative, resulting in weeds that are resistant to herbicides. This will lead to ineffective increased herbicide use because farmers will spray the superweeds repeatedly, unaware that the weeds are herbicide-resistant. Also, weeds that have cross-pollinated with GE crops bred to resist insect may become invasive, spreading beyond their natural habitat and out-competing native plants.

Despite these problems, Scotts Company is pushing for use of this product. Meghan Thomas of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said in a telephone interview, "Scotts has petitioned us to deregulate the product." However, the agency had already decided to conduct an environmental impact statement, a process that can take a year or sometimes longer, keeping the bentgrass from the market. Thomas stated, "We will go out there and we will take a look at the data, we will look at the field tests. This is a perennial and it has some wild and weedy relatives and this the first perennial that has come in to us for deregulation."

TAKE ACTION: Contact the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and voice your concerns regarding the bentgrass they are assessing. Use information from Beyond Pesticides’ Genetic Engineering Program Page, including the article 10 Reasons to Say No to Genetically Engineered Crops and Foods.