September 21, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Andrew Pollack, NY Times:
A new study shows that genes from genetically engineered
grass can spread much farther than previously known,
a finding that raises questions about the straying of
other plants altered through biotechnology and that
could hurt the efforts of two companies to win approval
for the first bioengineered grass.
The two companies, Monsanto and Scotts, have developed
a strain of creeping bentgrass for use on golf courses
that is resistant to the widely used herbicide Roundup.
The altered plants would allow groundskeepers to spray
the herbicide on their greens and fairways to kill weeds
while leaving the grass unscathed.
But the companies' plans have been opposed by some
environmental groups as well as by the federal Forest
Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Critics worry
that the grass could spread to areas where it is not
wanted or transfer its herbicide resistance to weedy
relatives, creating superweeds that would be immune
to the most widely used weed killer. The Forest Service
said earlier this year that the grass "has the
potential to adversely impact all 175 national forests
Some scientists said the new results, to be published
online this week by the journal Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences, did not necessarily raise alarms
about existing genetically modified crops like soybeans,
corn, cotton and canola. There are special circumstances,
they say, that make the creeping bentgrass more environmentally
worrisome, like its extraordinarily light pollen.
Because Scotts has plans to develop other varieties
of bioengineered grasses for use on household lawns,
the new findings could have implications well beyond
the golf course. And the study suggests that some previous
studies of the environmental impact of genetically modified
plants have been too small to capture the full spread
of altered genes.
Scotts says that because naturally occurring bentgrass
has not caused major weed problems, the bioengineered
version would pose no new hazards. And any Roundup-resistant
strains that might somehow develop outside of intentionally
planted areas could be treated with other weed killers,
the company said.
In the new study, scientists with the Environmental
Protection Agency found that the genetically engineered
bentgrass pollinated test plants of the same species
as far away as they measured - about 13 miles downwind
from a test farm in Oregon. Natural growths of wild
grass of a different species were pollinated by the
gene-modified grass nearly nine miles away.
Previous studies had measured pollination between various
types of genetically modified plants and wild relatives
at no more than about one mile, according to the paper.
"It's the longest distance gene-flow study that
I know of," said Norman C. Ellstrand, an expert
on this subject at the University of California, Riverside,
who was not involved in the study but read the paper.
"The gene really is essentially going to get out,"
he added. "What this study shows is it's going
to get out a lot faster and a lot further than people
One reason the grass pollen was detected so far downwind
was the size of the farm - 400 acres with thousands
of plants. Most previous studies of gene flow have been
done on far smaller fields, meaning there was less pollen
and a lower chance that some would travel long distances.
Those small studies, the new findings suggest, might
not accurately reflect what would happen once a plant
covers a large area.
"This is one of the first really realistic studies
that has been done," said Joseph K. Wipff, an Oregon
grass breeder. Dr. Wipff was not involved in the latest
study but had conducted an earlier one that found pollen
from genetically engineered grass traveling only about
1,400 feet. That test, though, used less than 300 plants
covering one-tenth of an acre.
The effort to commercialize the bentgrass has attracted
attention because it raises issues somewhat different
from those surrounding the existing genetically modified
It would be the first real use of genetic engineering
in a suburban setting, for example, rather than on farms.
And the grass is perennial, while corn, soybeans, cotton
and canola are planted anew each year, making them easier
Bentgrass can also cross-pollinate with at least 12
other species of grass, while the existing crops, except
for canola, have no wild relatives in the places they
are grown in the United States. And crops like corn
and soybeans have trouble surviving off the farm, while
grass can easily survive in the wild.
The bentgrass, moreover, besides having very light
pollen - a cloud can be seen rising from grass farms
- has very light seeds that disperse readily in the
wind. It can also reproduce asexually using stems that
creep along the ground and establish new roots, giving
rise to its name.
Because of the environmental questions, the application
for approval of the bioengineered bentgrass is encountering
delays at the Department of Agriculture, which must
decide whether to allow the plant to be commercialized.
After hearing public comments earlier this year, the
department has now decided to produce a full environmental
impact statement, which could take a year or more, according
to Cindy Smith, who is in charge of biotech regulation.
Ms. Smith, in an interview yesterday, said the new
study "gives some preliminary information that's
different from previous studies that we're aware of."
But more conclusive research is needed, she said.
Bentgrass is already widely used in its nonengineered
form by golf course operators, mainly for greens but
also for fairways and tee areas, in part because it
is sturdy even when closely mown. It is rarely used
on home lawns because it must be cared for intensively.
And creeping bentgrass does not cross-pollinate with
the types of grass typically used on lawns, scientists
Executives at Scotts, a major producer of lawn and
turf products based in Marysville, Ohio, said the genetically
engineered bentgrass would be sold only for golf courses.
They said golf courses cut their grass so often that
the pollen-producing part of the plants would never
And because nonengineered creeping bentgrass has not
caused weed problems despite being used on golf courses
for decades, they said, the genetically modified version
would pose no new problems.
"There has been pollen flow but it has not created
weeds," Michael P. Kelty, the executive vice president
and vice chairman of Scotts, said in an interview yesterday.
He said Scotts and Monsanto, the world's largest developer
of genetically modified crops, had spent tens of millions
of dollars since 1998 developing the bioengineered bentgrass.
The questions about the grass come after Monsanto,
which is based in St. Louis, said earlier this year
that it was dropping its effort to introduce the world's
first genetically engineered wheat, citing concerns
by farmers that its use in foods might face market opposition.<.p>
Scotts is also developing genetically modified grass
for home lawns, like herbicide-tolerant and slow-growing
types that would need less mowing. But those products
still need several more years of testing, Dr. Kelty
said, adding that the company would avoid types of grass
that could become weeds. "We don't want to put
a product out there that is going to be a threat,"
Scotts and Monsanto have received some support for
their argument from the Weed Science Society of America,
a professional group, which conducted a review of the
weed tendencies of creeping bentgrass and its close
relatives at the request of the Department of Agriculture.
"In the majority of the country these species
have not presented themselves as a significant weed
problem, historically," said Rob Hedberg, director
of science policy for the society, summarizing the conclusions
of the review. He said that because people have generally
not tried to control bentgrass and similar species with
Roundup, known generically as glyphosate, "the
inability to control them with this herbicide is a less
Still, the society's report noted that bentgrass could
be considered a weed by farms that are trying to grow
other grass seeds. And the Forest Service, in comments
to the Agriculture Department earlier this year, said
that bentgrass has threatened to displace native species
in some national forests.
John M. Randall, acting director of the Invasive Species
Initiative at the Nature Conservancy, said bentgrass
and related species had been a threat to native grasses
in certain preserves that the group helps manage, including
a couple near Montauk Point on eastern Long Island.
Other opponents of the genetically modified grass seized
on the results. "This does confirm what a lot of
people feared - expected, really," said Margaret
Mellon, director of the food and environment program
for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.
"These kinds of distances are eye-popping."
The new study was done by Lidia S. Watrud and colleagues
at an E.P.A. research center in Corvallis, Ore., who
were trying to develop new methods to assess gene flow,
not specifically to study the bentgrass.
They put out 178 potted and unmodified creeping bentgrass
plants, which they called sentinel plants, at various
distances around the test farm. They also surveyed wild
bentgrass and other grasses. They collected more than
a million seeds from the plants, growing them into seedlings
to test for herbicide resistance and doing genetic tests.
The number of seeds found to be genetically engineered
was only 2 percent for the sentinel plants, 0.03 percent
for wild creeping bentgrass and 0.04 percent for another
wild grass. Most of those seeds were found in the first
two miles or so, with the number dropping sharply after
that. Still, said Anne Fairbrother, one of the authors
of the report, finding even some cross pollination at
13 miles "is a paradigm shift in how far pollen