USDA Approves GMO Grass: No Tests Needed Just Sell It!

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Uh oh. If you’ve been following the issue here at RGB, you’re aware of the fact that the US Department of Agriculture has been making life very easy for Monsanto, the big agriculture behemoth that controls a huge share of US (and global) seed production. They’ve approved a number of  Monsanto’s genetically modified (GMO) crops already this year. But the latest development blows the doors off what has happened so far.

The USDA slipped through an innocuous-looking press release about Kentucky bluegrass late Friday afternoon before the Fourth of July weekend. It’s GMO bluegrass, engineered to resist Monsanto’s nasty plant-killer, Roundup, so you can plant it on your lawn and then douse the whole joint with their chemical weedkiller.

The USDA ruled that there was no danger, so they don’t need to do any tests. Just start selling.

“It’s a blatant end-run around regulatory oversight,” said George Kimbrell, senior lawyer at the Center for Food Safety.

Bye-bye, dandelions, hello birth defects. (See: It’s official: Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide causes birth defects.)

But hey, lots of people would be willing to exchange their firstborn child for a truly pristine, weed-free lawn, right? Although the company’s main target is golf courses. (Henceforth pregnant women will be advised to abstain from cigarettes, alcohol, and golf…).

Opening Pandora’s box

Getting a Roundup-resistant grass seed for golf courses has been in the works since at least 2004, when Monsanto and Scott tried to bring a GMO bentgrass (a similar species, also popular on golf courses) to market. An EPA study at that time found that unfortunately, the stuff spread its genes ALL OVER:

[Scott's GMO bentrass] 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.

… “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 anticipated.”

Did you get that? Not only did this stuff spread its genes into the same species, it spread them into wild grasses as well. Turning untold species into superweeds that are resistant to Roundup.

According to the 2004 study, bentgrass could be considered a weed on farms growing other species of grass, and has been invasive enough to displace native species in some National Forests. The Nature Conservancy has also seen bentgrass cause problems in some of the preserves it manages.

In 2007 Scotts was fined $500,000 because of escaped GMO bentgrass. And a judge ruled that the USDA had to seriously evaluate whether bentgrass and bluegrass could qualify as weeds.

They never did get that one under control. Scott’s runaway bentgrass was reported to be still invading farmers’ fields in Idaho and Oregon as recently as nine months ago.

Like bentgrass, bluegrass can cross-pollinate with other species, too.

Cutting-edge science

Is bluegrass safer than bentgrass? We’ll never know, because this time they’re not doing any tests. They did do an “assessment”. Here’s what the agency said, in a release by its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service division:

In July 2011, APHIS conducted a risk assessment to determine the level of weed risk posed by Kentucky bluegrass, and subsequently evaluated whether the impacts posed by the plant would warrant it being regulated as a Federal noxious weed. APHIS determined that while the plant meets the definition of a “noxious weed,” Kentucky bluegrass has not been found to cause impacts significant enough to warrant regulation at the Federal level.  As a result of this analysis, APHIS determined it would not regulate Kentucky bluegrass, glyphosate-tolerant or traditional, as a Federal noxious weed.

Emphasis mine.

The New York Times reported:

Michael C. Gregoire, who oversees biotechnology crop regulation at the Agriculture Department, said in an interview Wednesday that the ruling did not represent “a change in policy or a relaxing or abandoning of the regulation of G.E. crops.” He said other genetically engineered crops, like a petunia, had been exempted from regulation in the past.

A petunia.

What’s Gregoir’s background? While he has never worked for Monsanto, he also has no background in either biotechnology or science. His degrees are in political science and public administration. He’s been a budget analyst… and the Chief Information Officer of the USDA. How being the department’s PR flack prepares one for making cutting-edge science decisions is an interesting question indeed.

Roundup is currently the weedkiller of choice at large facilities like airports and along roadsides. Won’t it be fun when they have to apply more and more and more Roundup to keep down the new Frankenweeds? Same goes for all the farmers – and in this country, it IS nearly ALL the farmers – who plant Monsanto’s GMO corn, soybeans, sugarbeets and canola. Bluegrass can invade their fields right away, with cross-pollinated superweeds to follow.

An interesting question is… if this has been in the cards for more than 7 years, and an environmental impact statement was promised back in 2004… what happened to it? And why was this suddenly slipped through with no muss, no fuss this month?

And it gets worse…

Monsanto has a fun history… you see, they have patented the gene for Roundup resistance. It is their intellectual property.

And they have been militant about enforcing their property rights.

This means they have tested plants growing in farmers fields, and if they find their proprietary designer genes – in however small amount – they sue. That’s right, they take the farmers to court and demand damages for violation of their property rights.

They usually win, too. The only defense so far has been – be a good little Monsanto customer.

But what about Scotts? Would they do the same thing? Here’s how SafeLawns.org put it:

So would [Scotts CEO] Jim Hagedorn one day sue you for having his patented grass genes on your lawn? You couldn’t put that past a man who openly says “business is war.”

And it gets worse still… but we’ll save that for Part II: Throwing open the barn doors

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Photo from Turfweeds.net at Virginia Tech