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GENETICALLY ENGINEERED GRASS
STIRS DEBATE

Despite the controversial nature of biotech crops, the cutting-edge scienceis moving from farm fields into suburban lawns and golf courses as researchers push to get genetically engineered grass to the market.One strain of gene-altered grass, developed by seed companies and nicknamed"low-mow," inches up more slowly than regular grass, so it requires lesscutting and watering. Other grasses would be immune to a popular agricultural glyphosate herbicide, making weed-killing a breeze.

Bio-engineered flowers that promise longer blooms are also in the pipeline.Some see the products as the greatest thing since the weed whacker, theanswer to the suburban homeowner's dream of a perfect yard. Golf courses,which use weed-prone creeping bentgrass for carpet-smooth putting greens,are especially eager to have a grass that requires less intensive, lessexpensive maintenance.

Everybody, it seems, struggles with their lawn. "Does it grow in the shade?"Chicago's Kent Hardy asked hopefully, while pushing a cart filled with three bags of topsoil and a bag of grass seed mixture for shady lawns through ahome improvement centre.

Critics, however, say the products need more testing, have no redeemingsocietal value and fear pollen from the grass could contaminate plants andcreate herbicide-resistant super weeds. The American Society of LandscapeArchitects petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to suspend fieldtests until independent studies have been done.

"The new frontier of genetically engineered crops are coming to your frontlawn. It's bizarre and very concerning," said Matt Rand, director for biotechnology for the National Environmental Trust. "It's another productthat makes no sense."

Though the "low mow" slow-growing grasses are still several years away fromcommercial availability, genetically modified creeping bentgrass could popup on the market by 2004 or 2005, according to officials at Ohio-basedScotts Co., where scientists have been working with turf grass breeding programs at several universities.

This spring, Scotts plans to ask for permission to sell the first batches ofcreeping bentgrass, which can tolerate being sprayed with the herbicide Roundup, according to Scotts spokesman Jim King.

Roundup, a potent herbicide produced by Monsanto, effectively kills manytypes of vegetation, including crops. But if the crops have been genetically altered, they can withstand being sprayed by Roundup and are called "Roundup Ready," meaning a farmer can blanket his field with the herbicide --everything dies except the crop.

Introduced in the mid-1990s, the products have become enormously popular.About 74 per cent of this year's soy crop and about 32 per cent of the corncrop will be of biotech varieties, according to the U.S. Department ofAgriculture's spring survey. Biotech varieties of crops are also popularacross Canada.

The move by Scotts is likely to revive the ongoing biotechnology debate,which has been largely focused on agricultural crops and concerned consumers, especially in Europe. But the controversy has also hit turf grasses. Two years ago, protesters caused more than $300,000 in damage to anOregon research centre that was testing altered grass for golf courses.Vandals also struck research labs in Michigan and Minnesota.Despite the resistance, genetic modification is here. Proponents say biotechcrops can increase agricultural productivity while reducing farmers'reliance on pesticides. Biotech corn, for example, carries a bacterial genethat makes a protein that is lethal to caterpillars. Biotech cotton killsseveral important pests.

"As the population increases and the agricultural land declines, we have tohave methods of producing foods more efficiently," said Peter Day, foundingdirector of the Biotechnology Center for Agriculture and the Environment atRutgers University. "This technology is it. It's not a trivial activity."Opponents to the technology argue that transgenic plants can have an effecton neighbouring plants and on pests that weren't targeted. Geneticallymodified organisms have been shown to transfer genes in the environment,contaminating neighbouring crops and potentially creating uncontrollableweeds. Widespread planting of pest-resistant crops will accelerate resistance in pest populations, say environmentalists.

ASLA past president Len Hopper said the group has some concerns with the technology moving forward without an independent review. Tests conducted in2000 by Pure Seed Testing Inc., an Oregon grass seed company, showed that pollen from the genetically altered grass could travel as far as 1,000metres and fertilize other grasses.

"Once it's in the field, it can be spread and you can get a buildup ofherbicide-tolerant weeds," said Hopper, the head of the landscapearchitecture division for the New York City Housing Authority. "Plus there'sthe potential liability of contaminating traditional varieties. Assignificant as the economic benefit may be, you aren't talking about feedingmillions of starving people (with the technology). If we had to pause for aperiod of time to get an independent review, it's not a life-or-deathsituation."

To develop the grasses, scientists working mainly in greenhouses at Scotts'headquarters in Marysville, Ohio, use a gene gun to shoot plant DNA into atissue of grass. In the process, a tiny proportion of DNA is integrated into the nucleus of the cell. The company won't divulge what plants it is usingas a source of genetic material to slow the growth of grass, because ithopes to patent the technology, said a spokesman.

"In low-management areas, (slow-grow) grass has a lot of opportunities,especially in public parks and interstate roadsides, because it could savemoney, wear on the environment and equipment," said Andrew Hamblin, aprofessor of turf and grass breeding and genetics at the University ofIllinois. In addition, slow-growing grass could help cut down on lawn mower pollution.

Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass would be ideal for golf courses, where thegrass is often smoother than a living room carpet, mowed to a height of 2 or3 millimetres and difficult to manage.

Regular golf course grass doesn't hold up well to herbicides, but Roundup Ready grass would "be less susceptible to disease and probably take lesswater to irrigate the course," said Monsanto spokesman Mark Buckingham. Inaddition, it would reduce maintenance costs because grounds keepers couldspray everything at once instead of spot spraying.

While the grass would be welcomed by golf course owners, farmers who use Roundup Ready crops wouldn't want the creeping bent grass released in theircorn or soybeans, said Roger Beachy, director of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.

"It will be interesting to see the regulatory limits placed on the distribution or the cautions," he said.

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Written by: Julie Deardorff: Calgary Herald (Canada)


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