July 25, 2000

Snakes in the GM Grass

Scotts Says GM Grass Could be Greener with Terminator. USDA's Biotech Advisory Board Ruminates on Terminator.

GM (genetically modified) crops may be a fiasco on the farm, but Monsanto and its partner Scotts (Ohio, USA), are hoping that GM grass will be a sensation in suburbia. A page-one story in the New York Times, July 9th, reports that Scotts Company in collaboration with Monsanto and Rutgers University is developing genetically modified grass for suburban lawns and golf courses (David Barboza, 'Ground-Level Genetics, for the Perfect Lawn,' New York Times, July 9, 2000, p. 1.). Scotts predicts that the market for GM grass could sprout to a whopping $10 billion. (By contrast, the entire commercial market for crop seeds in the US is worth approximately $5 billion per annum.) Monsanto and Scotts are developing herbicide tolerant strains that can withstand spraying of Monsanto's blockbuster weedkiller Roundup, as well as genetically altered, slow-growing ('mow-me-less') grass. Just around the dogleg, Scotts and Monsanto foresee GM grass in designer colours.

As the world s leading advocate of agricultural biotechnologies, Monsanto has spent years trying to win public acceptance of its GM products. The company overextended with more than $8 billion in seed company acquisitions in the late 1990s. Now, after having to negotiate an embarrassing merger with Pharmacia-Upjohn, rumours abound that the new entity may want to put all or parts of Monsanto on the auction block.

'Monsanto still can t seem to reach the green,' observes Hope Shand, Research Director of RAFI. 'They hoped that by shifting their GM offensive from the farm to suburbia they could make an easy hole-in-one while sidestepping the biosafety and consumer concerns.'

Will the Scotts/Monsanto venture in weed-free, designer lawns and golf courses win the hearts and minds of suburbanites, and at long last gain consumer acceptance for biotech? Not in our backyards, says Jeremy Rifkin and the American Society of Landscape Architects who are petitioning the US government to mow down field tests of GM grass because of the potential ecological risks. According to one expert who has conducted field trials on bioengineered grass, GM grass pollen can migrate up to 3,000 feet, and can cross-fertilize with other grass strains. 'Our concern is mostly with pollen flow' Crystal Fricker of Pure Seed Testing told the New York Times, 'It's going to be a huge problem to keep this stuff contained.'


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