The USDA has cleared the way for cultivation of genetically modified tall fescue without conducting an environmental review of the new crop.

The Scotts Miracle-Gro company developed the glyphosate-resistant turfgrass variety with genes from other plants through a process known as “biolistics,” in which a “gene gun” essentially shoots DNA-coated metal particles into the plant cell.

Because the method does not involve the use of a plant pest for gene transfer, the USDA has no authority to regulate the tall fescue, according to a document recently released by the agency.

Controversial biotech crops that are also resistant to glyphosate herbicides — such as “Roundup Ready” alfalfa and sugar beets — were made using a soil pathogen, which required USDA to study the plants before deregulating them.

Scotts began to re-orient its biotechnology program after a regulated variety of genetically engineered creeping bentgrass escaped a field trial in Central Oregon in 2003, which eventually resulted in a $500,000 civil penalty from USDA.

Since then, the bentgrass cultivar has been stuck in regulatory limbo as the USDA has not approved it to be grown commercially without restrictions.

However, over the past four years the company has persuaded the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that several biotech varieties of Kentucky bluegrass and St. Augustinegrass did not come under its regulatory jurisdiction.

“They’re able to get around APHIS’ authority with their new techniques,” Carol Mallory-Smith, a weed science professor at Oregon State University.

Genetically modified tall fescue, which Scotts has also altered to grow “shorter, thicker and darker green,” is the latest grass crop to be cleared by USDA after Scotts notified the agency that it planned to begin field testing the variety.

Capital Press was unable to reach Scotts for comment, but some in the grass seed industry say the company’s activities have sparked concerns.

Resistance to glyphosate — while potentially convenient for homeowners — can turn grasses into troublesome weeds for farmers.

Naturally occurring resistance from repeated glyphosate spraying has already caused problems for Northwest hazelnut growers and farmers in the Midwest who use annual ryegrass as a cover crop, said Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Tall Fescue Commission.

“There is concern about resistance in general in grass seed production,” Ostlund said.

Turf-type tall fescue is typically planted on golf courses and lawns and isn’t usually considered weedy, he said.

While Ostlund isn’t sure what Scotts has planned for its glyphosate-resistant grasses, he urged the company to “proceed with caution.”

Unlike Kentucky bluegrass, which largely produces seeds asexually, tall fescue is much more likely to cross-pollinate with other grasses of its variety, according to a breeder who declined to be named. “If it’s anywhere near any other tall fescue, it will outcross.”

While the potential for cross-pollination can be mitigated during commercial seed production, it would be much harder to control the biotech crop’s gene flow if it’s released to homeowners, the breeder said.

“It’s a perennial crop. It’s not going to die out,” the breeder said.

Export markets that object to biotech crops, such as Europe, are also unlikely to differentiate between Scotts’ biolistic glyphosate-resistant cultivar and other biotech crops that were made with plant pests and previously regulated by USDA, the breeder said.

“It’s still genetically modified. It’s still transgenic,” said Mallory-Smith of OSU.

For the new tall fescue to be a viable product, its resistance to glyphosate would have to be strong, she said.

For farmers, such resistance would mean switching to other herbicides or weed control methods if they want to remove the variety, Mallory-Smith said.

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