A straw in the wind (25/8/2006)

Yet another scathing editorial from a US paper.

EXCERPT: Life is tenacious, biological processes are hard to control, the risk of the unforeseen is ever-present and hubris has the power to make people blind.

A straw in the wind
A Register-Guard Editorial
Register Guard, August 25, 2006

Don't be alarmed, say the people at Monsanto and Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. They're developing a genetically modified type of grass that is resistant to the herbicide glyphosphate, better known as Roundup. The fact that the grass has been found miles away from a test plot in central Oregon is nothing to worry about, company spokesmen say. Yet it is difficult to feel reassured.

Roundup-resistant grass would be used on golf courses, where groundskeepers could spray the herbicide to kill weeds without hurting the grass. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is conducting an environmental assessment before deciding whether to approve the grass. The USDA would be well-advised to take into account some factors the developers seem to have overlooked.

Monsanto and Scotts planted a crop two years ago on a test plot surrounded by a wide buffer. Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency laboratory in Corvallis found that pollen from the grass had drifted as far as 13 miles. When the test was complete, the grass was destroyed. Now the EPA has found nine grass plants containing the Roundup-resistant gene outside the test plot - some of which had grown from drifting seed, and others that had hybridized with wild grass species.

No big deal, say the companies' spokesmen. A majority of many of the United States' major crops, such as soybeans, corn and cotton, are genetically modified varieties, including some that have been given genes for herbicide resistance. They're not spreading uncontrollably. But these crops do not have wild relatives nearby, and they have to be replanted every year. Grasses have many relatives, and do not need replant- ing.

Even so, Monsanto and Scotts claim, the kind of grass used on golf courses is not a weed, so its spread would not be a problem. And it's unlikely to spread in any case, because golf course groundskeepers keep their grass short, so it never has a chance to scatter seed or pollen. Yet the genetically modified grass has already shown itself able to hybridize with other varieties, some of which might be undesirable. And even the most careful groundskeeper's mower can miss a few blades or patches of grass.

Finally, the companies say the seed and pollen was spread by an unexpected windstorm that came after the grass had been cut and was drying. Such conditions are so rare that spreading should not recur. Yet if Monsanto and Scotts are counting on predictable weather to keep their crop where it belongs, they may also have overlooked a thousand other ways, from birds to boots, that pollen and seed can be spread by accident or by chance.

The escape and proliferation of an herbicide-resistant grass would not be the end of the world, but it could cause serious problems. One result could be that farmers and groundskeepers would be forced to use herbicides other than Roundup - including some that cost more or persist longer in the environment - to control unwanted grasses. Another is that Oregon's $370-million grass seed crop could be closed out of markets in countries that have strict rules against genetically modified organisms.

Those effects are unlikely, the companies say. Maybe so. Still, it's hard not to feel a twinge of concern. As the USDA reviews the genetically modified grass, it should bear in mind some facts that have already been demonstrated on the Oregon test plot: Life is tenacious, biological processes are hard to control, the risk of the unforeseen is ever-present and hubris has the power to make people blind.

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