GMO Grass Set for Lawns Across US – No Regulation Needed

Posted on Feb 4 2014 - 12:14am by Sustainable Pulse

A little-noticed, almost nonchalant, article in the Columbus Dispatch last week portends substantial environmental and economic mischief.

The article notes that Scotts Company is going forward with plans to commercialize GMO Kentucky bluegrass. Mentioned in passing was that this grass, engineered for resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (AKA Roundup), is not regulated by USDA, and that company employees will begin planting the grass at their homes.

Source:  A Hole in the Regulation of GMOs that Kudzu Could Fit Through

What was that? Historically, unapproved GMO crops have been grown only in controlled plots, regulated and monitored by USDA (leave aside that these are not adequately regulated either). So why are Scotts employees allowed to grow this grass in an uncontrolled environment?

We have to go back to two little-noted decisions by USDA in July of 2011 to understand this. First, in response to a petition from the Center for Food Safety to regulate the GMO bluegrass as a noxious weed under the Plant Protection Act of 2000 (PPA), the USDA decided that, despite fitting the agency’s criteria of a noxious weed, it would deny the petition.

Second, USDA decided that because the genes used to make the GMO grass did not come from known plant pests (e.g., plant pathogens), and did not use a plant pest to introduce the genes into the grass, the GMO bluegrass would not be regulated as a possible plant pest. To grasp the importance of this, it must be understood that virtually every previous GMO plant or crop has been regulated as a possible plant pest.

These two decisions mean that the GMO bluegrass will not be regulated by USDA, and hence can be grown freely, even though it has not gone through the typical regulatory process. This has implications far beyond the specific case of GMO bluegrass.

In the earlier days of genetic engineering, the large majority of engineered crops contained genes or parts of genes from plant pests (such as from plant viruses), or used a modified bacterial pathogen (called Agrobacterium) to introduce the genes into plants.

But in most cases, it is now easy to avoid these constraints, as Scotts did. The use of pest genes as a reason to regulate GMOs was always unsupportable scientifically. Many genes from pathogens are no more (or less) harmful than genes from non-pathogens. But because our GMO regulations are based on inadequate laws already in existence in the 1980s, the agencies were left trying to fit a regulatory square peg into a statutory round hole, and came up with the pest-gene ruse.

The result of the two 2011 decisions is to eviscerate the already weak environmental regulation of GMOs.

A noxious weed standard that doesn’t cover kudzu

Despite new language and legal authority in the PPA, USDA has narrowly interpreted its mandate in its assessment of GMO bluegrass. In its bluegrass decision, it used an earlier standard for noxious weeds, which set an extremely high bar. Not even the notorious kudzu is listed as a federal noxious weed.

In fact, only the absolutely most destructive and damaging weeds rate as noxious under the old standard. Here are a few examples:

“Mile‐a‐minute vines (Mikania cordata and M. micrantha) can entirely smother fields and forests in a dense, tangled mass of vines. A single plant of the aquatic weed giant salvinia (Salvinia spp.) can blanket 40 square miles in 3 months, and produce an underwater mat 3 feet thick.”

According to USDA, only the worst of the worst weeds justify noxious weed status:

“….weeds are invasive, often non‐native, plants which impact natural and managed ecosystems, often with significant negative consequences due to lost yields, changes in management practices, altered herbicide use, etc. Only a fraction of these problematic weeds are considered to be so invasive, so harmful, and so difficult to control that Federal regulatory intervention to prevent their introduction or dissemination is justified, and these are the focus of the regulatory controls placed on them by APHIS.”

This is an abdication of the agency’s responsibility to protect the public. Part of the reluctance to include weeds on the noxious weeds list is the high cost of obligatory control of already disseminated weeds. But preventing the initial introduction of a possible weedy GMO would often be far less expensive than the cost of ongoing damage after introduction and spread. Many weeds that are not considered noxious cause many millions of dollars of harm per year in the cost of herbicides, crop loss, or other environmental damage. They are already part of the environment, but yet-to-be-approved GMOs are not.

In addition, the newer PPA version of the noxious weed law includes consideration of economic harm to farmers or the public. But USDA has not written regulations for PPA, so this authority remains unused.

Protecting the public?

Even with these caveats, the USDA analysis concluded that GMO (and non-GMO) Kentucky bluegrass fulfilled the criteria of a noxious weed, scoring 24 on a 32 point scale. Despite this, USDA decided not to adopt this assessment because, according to the agency, they did not find enough evidence of previous harm from non-GMO bluegrass, even after acknowledging reports of invasiveness in prairie ecosystems. As pointed out by the Nature Conservancy, bluegrass is a pervasive and serious invasive plant in prairies.

On the other hand, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack noted in his letter to Scotts that contamination of non-GMO pastures may cause economic problems, and exhorted the company to work to prevent them. No mention was provided in the Dispatch article as to whether the company had made any such arrangements. How would organic markets respond to cows grazing on GMO bluegrass that has invaded pastures?

In any case, it is highly unlikely that spread of the GMO bluegrass could be prevented. An Ohio State University scientist noted in the Dispatch article that heavier pollen from bluegrass is not as likely to spread as lighter bentgrass pollen, which escaped from anOregon field trial at distances in excess of 20 kilometers. But spread it will, even if at a somewhat slower rate than bentgrass. A report 10 years ago from the National Research Council noted that gene spread from commercialized GMOs is virtually inevitable.

Whether GMO bluegrass is commercialized or not, its exclusion from GMO regulation points to dysfunction at USDA. It seems that the only reason for the noxious weed assessment of GMO bluegrass was the petition from Center for Food Safety, because it is not done for other GMOs.

And the ridiculously high noxious weed standard used by USDA means that even very harmful GMOs or weeds resulting from GMO use—such as the glyphosate resistant weeds now plaguing the country—would not be regulated as noxious weeds even if the agency began assessing the noxious weed status of GMOs.

As noted in my last post, USDA has not written regulations for noxious weed standards for GMOs under the PPA. And it will be relatively easy for others to evade regulation by USDA by avoiding the plant pest trigger, unless reasonable and protective noxious weed regulations are written. Add to that the lack of mandatory food safety regulation by FDA, with tests largely determined by the regulated industry, with no long-term testing requirements, and it is clear that the US regulation of GMOs is inadequate and in urgent need of overhaul.

About the author: Doug Gurian-Sherman is a widely-cited expert on biotechnology and sustainable agriculture. He holds a Ph.D. in plant pathology. See Doug’s full bio.

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About the Author

Sustainable Pulse is a global news outlet covering sustainable agriculture, GMOs and pesticides.

18 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. NoGMOsPeriod February 4, 2014 at 00:57 - Reply

    Our dying, declining nation needs a moratorium on pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs.


    There is no need for GMO grass, there has never been a need for GMO grass, and there will never be a need for GMO grass.

    We already have too much grass!

    • Judy February 5, 2014 at 02:33 - Reply

      We do not want any GMOs or Roundup ready grass. All of these chemicals are ruining our enviornment.

    • Jayne February 17, 2014 at 02:30 - Reply

      I can’t believe you are doing this…
      You should be ashamed. Greed, that’s all it is, GREED!!!!
      I’ll will NEVER buy Scotts again.
      Consider yourselves killers!

  2. Angela February 4, 2014 at 15:08 - Reply

    Too much grass, too much greed, too much ignorance. I suppose the situation has not hit its worst yet with regard to GMO, and until that happens, people won’t care. Let’s hope it’s not too late by the time people finally take notice. The dying bee population is a very good indicator globally of how dire the situation is.

  3. rose February 5, 2014 at 04:04 - Reply

    Does anyone remember this?
    Scotts Miracle-Gro to Pay Record Fines for Poisoning Birds and Selling Illegal Pesticides Sept 2012.
    They are not to be trusted. Boycott all their products.

  4. Anna February 5, 2014 at 05:38 - Reply

    There needs to be laws on this kind of thing. GM grass should not be allowed.

  5. lj February 5, 2014 at 06:46 - Reply

    Shame on Scott’s. Shame on USDA. Shame on This Corporatocracy!
    Boycott now!
    Bee colony collapse, butterfly populations collapse due to milkweed decimation, human digestive system dysfunction due to GMO foods…when will we ever learn? when will we EVER learn?

  6. Mau February 5, 2014 at 07:41 - Reply

    I am going to spread the word through every method I know how, everyone I know and everyone they know will boycott buying your gmo grass. There is no need and never will ever be a need for GMO grass. This is ridiculous and exposing our future generations to this toxic abomination is unacceptable. Cease this disgusting Spread of ignorance Scott’s products, at least for your own souls.

  7. Sherrie February 6, 2014 at 08:36 - Reply

    Gmo’s affect everything and everyone. Everything should be the way nature intended leave are plants, animal, etc alone and out of the labs. It’s not like they can contain the effects to one area. No to all GMO’S

  8. Betsy February 6, 2014 at 19:03 - Reply

    Is there any way we can get over 100,000 electronic signatures and present it to Congress, so that they can stop this. I know that the did it for Justin Beiber, when they wanted him deported from the US.

  9. wilson February 7, 2014 at 06:30 - Reply


  10. Lisa February 7, 2014 at 15:06 - Reply

    What is the genetic modification in the grass? Has there been any studies done on what it does to animals grazing on it? I’m NOT talking about the chemicals (we have that info), I mean just eating the gmo grass in case it had spread into your pasture? Pasture people tend to use herbicides other than roundup to kill weeds and leave grasses but it has been a staple for crop production. Just curious how this crossover will affect even the wildlife down the line / or not.

  11. Renay February 11, 2014 at 15:07 - Reply

    Visiting all local lawn care services in our area today! Information in hand about SCOTTS and monsanto. Every effort that can be made to detour the use of your products will be made!
    The world does not need MORE GMO anything! REMOVE this horrible product from shelves and destroy it!

  12. Jwk February 11, 2014 at 15:56 - Reply


  13. Breanna February 14, 2014 at 16:15 - Reply

    No more gmo’s! You’re ruining our environment and our kids will have little help in their future. Gmo’s are a big mistake and may be the end of humanity if they become too widespread. This is getting rediculous!!

  14. Stephanie March 18, 2014 at 16:22 - Reply

    I put in an Eco-Lawn a few years back…no fertilizers, barely any watering, I only mow twice a year and I love it! It’s so damn soft and looks good when all the other lawns are browned up in the summer.
    Oh…and no GMOs 🙂 if you’re interested

  15. T.A. Sampson June 7, 2014 at 17:51 - Reply

    Did we not learn our lesson with DDT? The planet is being poisoned in the name of profit and greed. This needs to stop before it is too late, or perhaps it already is.

  16. Albert Koenig November 23, 2014 at 17:26 - Reply

    Dirty minds like dirty politics washing each other’s hands for big profit. I don’t buy any of these chemical products anyway. People please educate your selves more and u can reduce your exposure. Unfortunately the target people are the uneducated. Would it be nice to have commercials to reverse this mind conditiining. Big interest for big profit at any costs and dirty laundry with big corporations that is not easy to police.

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