Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
Recently, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was sued over its failure to recognize the dangers associated with grasses genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides. On January 8, 2003, the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA) and the Center for Food Safety sued USDA arguing that creeping bentgrass and Kentucky bluegrass, both of which are being engineered to resist Roundup (glyphosate), are already serious problems in some natural areas and would become "super weeds" if herbicide resistance was built in. Monsanto, maker of Roundup, and Scotts Company, a home garden and pesticide products company, have asked for USDA approval to commercialize a genetically engineered (GE) variety of creeping bentgrass popular for golf course greens and commercial and residential lawns.
Once released into the environment, the herbicide tolerant grasses could proliferate at will. Because gasses are wind-pollinated species with pollen that blows for hundreds of yards, they hybridize easily. Some species' seeds can remain viable for 10 to 15 years. Turfgrasses are ubiquitous in and near almost every type of habitat in which the U.S. populace lives, works and plays, including an estimated 40,000,000 residential lawns and parks, at least 40,000 athletic facilities, more than 17,000 golf courses, and countless other landscapes where they have been planted or invaded on their own.
CTA's complaint termed the GE grasses "a unique, man-made form of biological pollution" with the potential to both out-compete native grasses and genetically pollute native vegetation. Concerned about the risks of biotech super weeds, CTA petitioned USDA in July 2002 to list genetically engineered varieties of these grasses as "noxious weeds." Instead, since last July, the agency has continued to allow open-field testing of the Roundup resistant grasses on approximately 100 acres in 15 states.
Turfgrass is the second largest seed market in the United States after hybrid corn, with annual sales estimated between US$580 million and US$1.2 billion. The U.S. turfgrass seed export market amounts to US$70 million per year. Scotts Company executives are reported to believe the eventual market for GE lawn products will reach US$10 billion.
Prominent organizations including the American Society of Landscape Architects (more than 14,000 members nationally), the Foundation on Economic Trends and The Nature Conservancy (the largest holder of private land preserves in the world) have also submitted comments to USDA urging a moratorium on release of GE turfgrasses.
"Biotech grasses represent a very real environmental and economic threat to communities and natural areas throughout the country," said CTA Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell. "Going to court was the only way to ensure that these "'super weeds" are not released into our neighborhoods."
According to CTA, beyond their impacts as weeds, other potential impacts of GE herbicide resistant grass include:
** increased glyphosate use, misuse, and resultant foreseeable chemical pollution, damage and injuries; the very purpose of the product being to allow turfgrass managers and landowners of all types to spray more Roundup weed killer on a broadcast rather than a spot basis;
** increased glyphosate resistance in weeds such that they will be more harmful in the future; as more and more glyphosate is sprayed the selection pressure on weeds to develop resistance will increase (see PANUPS, 12/20/02 http://www.panna.org/resources/panups/panup_20021220.dv.html);
** economic harm due to genetic contamination of fields of non-GE turfgrasses intended for conventional markets, and the necessity for the impacted turfgrass farmers to use more expensive, environmentally damaging, and even more dangerous herbicides instead of glyphosate to kill GE infestations; and
** economic harm to organic farmers near any GE grass plantings because of the increased presence of adventitious GE materials in their crops and the potential for increased herbicide contamination, both of which are rejected by premium markets for organic products.
Sources: Press Release, International Center for Technology Assessment & the Center for food Safety, Lawsuit Filed Against USDA to Halt Commercialization of Genetically Engineered Lawn Grass, Center for Technology Assessment's original legal petition is available at: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press_release10_26_2004.cfm; the legal complaint is available on line at: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/.
Contact: International Center for Technology Assessment, Center for Food Safety, 660 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Suite 302, Washington, DC 20003; phone (202) 547-9359; fax (202) 547-9429; email firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site http://www.icta.org/.