Reflections On GE Lawn Grasses

The possibility that Scotts MiracleGro will release genetically engineered (GE) Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue lawn grasses fascinates me. If this happens, it would mark the first introduction of glyphosate-resistant turfgrass into the market. Glyphosate is a non-selective, systemic herbicide used to kill unwanted weeds. Being non-selective, it kills both grassy and broadleaf weeds.

Could GE grasses be in our future? There seems to be little to stop Scotts should it decide that the market would respond favorably to them.

In 2011, federal regulators exempted Scotts’ genetically modified Kentucky bluegrass from regulation. This past December, the company’s Roundup-resistant tall fescue cleared the same hurdle.

Also, Scotts CEO James “Jim” Hagedorn has more than suggested “limited commercial activity” for the firm’s GE grass in 2015, and its introduction into the consumer market in 2016. Hagedorn served in the U.S. Air force as a F-16 fighter pilot and is a graduate of Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program. That he shared the information about the GE Kentucky bluegrass at an annual shareholders’ meeting seems significant to me.

The possibility of Roundup-resistant turfgrass turning up in distributor’s warehouses or on store shelves has, to this point anyway, aroused more reaction from the activist community than from the professional lawn industry or from the public.

Predictable opposition

Beyond Pesticides, based in Washington, D.C., opposes the introduction of GE turfgrass into the market. That anti-pesticide organization, founded more than 30 years ago, claims these grasses, rather than decreasing the use of synthetic pesticides, will actually increase their use—especially the amount of glyphosate applied onto urban properties. Beyond Pesticides also warns about the risk of transgene escape of GE turfgrasses through pollen flow and seed dispersion flow to non-GE perennial grasses.

A website identified only as GMO Free USA has, to this writing, collected the names of more than 42,000 people who want to “stop Scotts GMO grass in its tracks.” The website contains no information about who or what GMO Free USA is.

For its part, the professional lawn care market appears to have adopted a wait-and-see (if not indifferent) attitude toward the new grasses. And homeowners seem to be largely unaware that there is such a thing as GE lawn grass, and it may be in a store near their homes someday.

Most of the cool-season turfgrass seed used to install a new lawn or renovate a customer’s yard is grown in Oregon or in eastern Washington. I’ve visited seed companies in both locations on seven occasions, usually in mid-to-late June just before the seed is harvested. I’ve scrutinized test plots and walked seed production fields in both Oregon and Washington. When you see the process close-up, as I have, you get great appreciation for the difficulty of bringing an improved grass to market. There’s a lot of risk, and it often takes a decade before an improved variety can be commercialized.

Going the traditional route

The big push in the turf seed industry the last decade or more has been the development of attractive low-water-use lawn grasses. Scotts says its GE Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue fit that bill nicely. Of course, similar claims can be made for many non-GE species and varieties. The seed industry continues to improve lawn grasses through traditional selection and breeding methods.

Apart from the technology involved in developing GE organisms, technology that was developed several decades ago, the most fascinating (and perhaps challenging) aspect about GE grasses will involve commercializing them.

I, for one, will be fascinated to see how Scotts MiracleGro, should it decide to do so, brings these grasses to market, and how and where these grasses might be used and managed successfully.