(Beyond Pesticides, July 8, 2011) The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued a decision stating that it does not consider a new type of genetically engineered (GE) turf grass to be subject to federal regulations. In the decision announced by the USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the agency stated that it does not have the authority to regulate introduction or transportation of the GE grass seed under the provisions of the Plant Protection Act . The grass, developed by Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, has been engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, commonly sold as Roundup. Kentucky bluegrass is a popular choice for yards and fields as well as pastures and prairies, and the GE seed is expected to be made available for consumers to plant in their home lawns, potentially making it one of the most widely planted GE crops in the country.
USDA’s authority to regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs) stems from provisions of the Plant Protection Act (relevant regulations can be found at 7 CFR 340) that are designed to ensure that GMOs do not present the potential for new “plant pests.” As the New York Times explains, “Since companies have created most genetically modified crops, like herbicide-resistant corn and soybean, using either genes or tools derived from microbes, USDA has long extended its powers to nearly every biotech plant developed in the country.” However, the GE bluegrass was developed using genetic material from other plants, such as corn and rice, and contains no microbes. Accordingly, APHIS stated that, “The GE bluegrass variety is not within the Agency’s regulatory authority because it does not contain plant pest sequences and no plant pest was used to create the GE Kentucky bluegrass.”
This finding is distinct from previous findings of “deregulated status” for other GE crops, such as GE alfalfa. In those cases, APHIS had used its authority to evaluate any potential plant pest risk posed by the new crop and found that the risk was minimal, meaning that the crop did not need to be regulated (though the agency is currently being challenged in court over the integrity of its evaluation process). For the GE bluegrass, no review was conducted, since APHIS does not believe it has the authority.
Aside from the likely increase in residential herbicide applications as a result of home plantings, allowance of the GE bluegrass presents the potential for increased difficulties for organic farmers and ranchers. Because of the popularity of the grass in yards, pastures, and prairies, its use is expected to be quite widespread. This will make conversion of new land to organic food production more difficult as, according to APHIS’s fact sheet on the decision, “Once established, GE Kentucky bluegrass may prevent transition to organic status unless eradicated from the acreage to be transitioned.” Additional concerns stem partly from the fact that a separate variety of GE grass, which USDA is still considering, escaped from a Scotts test plot in Oregon in 2007. The company was fined $500,000 as a result.
In a letter accompanying the GE bluegrass decision, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urged the Scotts Company to “work closely with a broad range of stakeholders” to “develop appropriate and effective stewardship measures to minimize commingling and gene flow between GE and non-GE Kentucky bluegrass,” reflecting the Secretary’s continuing belief and insistence on coexistence between GE, non-GE, and organic farmers.
Responding to questions about whether this decision sets a precedent for future unregulated approval of GMOs, USDA indicates that the decision does not represent a shift in policy and that it will make decisions on a case-by-case basis. However, the agency added that, “If a GE organism is not a plant pest, is not made using plant pests, and APHIS has no reason to believe that it is a plant pest, then the GE organism would not fall under APHIS regulatory authority.”
Glyphosate is a general herbicide used for eradication of broadleaf weeds. It has been linked to a number of serious human health effects, including increased cancer risk, neurotoxicity, and birth defects, as well as eye, skin, and respiratory irritation. One of the inert ingredients in product formulations of Roundup, polyoxyethyleneamine (POEA), kills human embryonic cells. It is also of particular concern due to its toxicity to aquatic species as well as instances of serious human health effects from acute exposure.
Herbicide applications to control weeds on residential lawns and playing fields are dangerous and unnecessary. A healthy lawn will be free of pests and will create a safe area for outdoor recreation. For more information see our fact sheet on why children and pesticides don’t mix as well our guide on how to “Read Your Weeds” to create a healthy lawn. More resources can be found on our Lawns and Landscapes page.
Beyond Pesticides believes that whether it is the incorporation into food crops of genes from a natural bacterium (Bt) or the development of an herbicide-resistant crop, the GE approach to pest management is short sighted and dangerous. There are serious public health and pest resistance problems associated with GE crops. Beyond Pesticides’ goal is to push for labeling as a means of identifying products that contain GE ingredients, seek to educate on the public health and environmental consequences of this technology and generate support for sound ecologically-based management systems.
For more news and information, see Beyond Pesticides’ genetic engineering page.