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GE bluegrass raises concerns for grass seed growers

Mateusz Perkowski
Kentucky bluegrass genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate herbicides may be commercialized by a major lawn and garden company.

The possibility that genetically engineered Kentucky bluegrass will be sold to homeowners has raised questions about potential impacts to Northwest grass seed producers.

At this point, however, details about the crop’s eventual commercialization — and where the seed will be produced — remain murky.

Early this year, Jim Hagedorn, CEO of Scotts Miracle-Gro, told investors that the company’s employees would be testing an enhanced grass seed product this year.

“This is original work that Scotts people have done on a shoestring budget, a little bit of a kind of black ops program,” he said. “I’m really proud of it.”

The product will be commercialized on a limited basis in 2015, and then rolled out on a broader scale in 2016, Hagedorn said at the annual investor meeting in January.

Hagedorn said the company “effectively closed the biotech program down” after a variety of Scotts’ genetically engineered creeping bentgrass was found to have escaped a field trial a decade ago.

However, Scotts researchers said they could “do it another way” and work with USDA to bring innovation to grass seed, he said.

Hagedorn appeared to be referring to genetically engineered varieties that USDA cleared for commercialization in 2011 and 2012.

Scotts inserted genes from other plants to render the crop impervious to glyphosate herbicides and confer “enhanced turfgrass quality,” the company said in letters to USDA.

Because the biotech crops were made without incorporating genes from plant pests, the agency found it had no authority to regulate the Kentucky bluegrass.

Other glyphosate-resistant crops often rely on genes from pathogenic soil bacteria, which brings them under USDA’s regulatory purview.

The glyphosate-resistant Kentucky bluegrass, on the other hand, can be cultivated without undergoing the time-consuming deregulatory process, which can followed by additional years of expensive litigation.

“It’s a very exciting technological improvement that to some extent sets an example,” Hagedorn told investors.

Scotts now appears to be backing away from the timeline set out by Hagedorn earlier this year.

The company is still in the research and development phase and isn’t setting firm dates for commercialization, said Jim King, Scotts’ senior vice president of corporate affairs.

“We’re still trying to move forward to understand what the marketing opportunities are,” he said.

King said the company is not disclosing where the Kentucky bluegrass seeds are being grown or tested.

The question of where the crop might be produced has drawn the interest of breeders in the Pacific Northwest, where Kentucky bluegrass seed is grown in several areas.

The potential for genetically engineered Kentucky bluegrass cross-pollinating with other varieties of the crop isn’t a major worry, since the species is largely self-pollinating, according to a breeder who did not want to be identified.

However, commercially available GE Kentucky bluegrass would have several ways of escaping into the environment, like seeds being carried by birds or waterways, the breeder said.

If the seed germinates in field of conventional Kentucky bluegrass destined for Europe or another country that’s hostile to genetically modified organisms, “who is responsible?” the breeder said. “We have to guarantee there is no GMO in the seed we export.”

Grass seed buyers in Europe and Japan were already nervous when an unauthorized release of biotech wheat was discovered in Oregon last year, said Leah Brilman, director of product management and technical services for DLF Pickseed, a seed company.

“They wanted us to swear on a stack of Bibles there was no GMO in it,” she said.

Brilman said she doesn’t consider genetically engineered Kentucky bluegrass a “Frankenmonster” but wants to avoid any costs associated with it.

“I don’t want to have to run tests on our grass seed to verify it doesn’t have this gene,” she said.

That concern would be alleviated if Scotts produced the crop outside the Northwest, but the company is being tight-lipped, she said.

“They’ve been much more secretive than they were on the Roundup Ready bentgrass,” Brilman said, referring to the restricted grass variety that can withstand Roundup, a common glyphosate brand.

Some breeders have floated the idea of creating a map pinning system to ensure the Scott crop doesn’t cross-pollinate with other Kentucky bluegrasses, according to the breeder who did not want to be identified.

Scotts responded that it’s too early to talk about such specifics.

“We’re too premature in the process to answer any question about what we would or wouldn’t do,” said King, the Scotts executive.

The Center for Food Safety, a group that’s critical of genetic engineering, fears that increased usage of glyphosate by homeowners will lead to weed problems.

By spraying the herbicide over entire lawns, “you could cause the evolution of other glyphosate resistant grasses,” said Bill Freese, the group’s science policy analyst.

Glyphosate would further lose efficacy, requiring other herbicides to keep weeds down, he said. “You’re taking away a major less toxic option.”

Jim King of Scotts said the company’s Kentucky bluegrass would have multiple advantages, like slower growth and drought tolerance.

“We’re looking at a turf variety that meets consumer needs and has environmental benefits as well,” he said.



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