RODALE NEWS, NEW YORK, NY—Despite mounting evidence that using the chemical weed killer Roundup creates health threats and food security issues—among them are birth defects, plummeting nutrients in food crops, and hard-to-kill superweeds—the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) this month announced it will not regulate a Scotts Miracle-Gro Kentucky bluegrass that's being genetically engineered to withstand sprayings of Roundup. The grass is still in its research-and-development stage, so it's not available in stores yet, but experts fear the recent USDA decision to not regulate it as a noxious weed or plant pest could push it onto the market faster, since there are few regulations to hold it back. Because Kentucky bluegrass is typically used in yards, parks, golf courses, and playing fields, and can migrate into pastures and grasslands, introducing this GMO (for genetically modified organism) crop could quickly infiltrate the entire country. According to food-safety experts, this recent decision signals that USDA is easing its stance on regulating new GMOs. "This is potentially the most serious change in U.S. policy on GE plants in years," says Margaret Mellon, PhD, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Besides unknown environmental effects, the putting the grass on the market will likely lead to an increase in toxic herbicide use, since the plant's been engineered to resist the Roundup weedkiller.
THE DETAILS: Traditionally, USDA regulates GMO plants because they contain tiny amounts of plant pest genes from bacteria, viruses, fungi, or insects. However, today chemical companies are genetically engineering plants without using plant pest genes (instead they're using high-velocity gene guns and heavy metals to inject the foreign genes into plants), paving the way for USDA to give up regulating the latest generation of GMOs. The agency also refused The Center for Food Safety's petition asking that the GMO Kentucky bluegrass be regulated as a noxious weed, even though the agency admitted it does meet the definition of the term. (In effect, USDA said it wasn't a destructive enough noxious weed, unlike mile-a-minute vine and other weeds that cost the U.S. millions to deal with every year.)
WHAT IT MEANS: The USDA has been on a tear in terms of making life easier for chemical-/GMO-producing companies, to the bewilderment of a growing demographic that demands organic food. It recently approved GMO sugar beets, which could cross-pollinate and contaminate traditional table beets, and genetically engineered alfalfa, a move that threatens organic dairies. Scientists say cross-contamination into organic alfalfa fields is inevitable.
While Kentucky bluegrass isn't a food crop, there are serious implications of introducing a GMO grass plant used in residential lawns and on golf courses, according to UCS and other groups.