Biotech grass found far afield

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Genes from a genetically engineered grass travel much farther than previously measured and can spread biotech traits to related plants at least 13 miles away, according to a study made public Monday.

"That is just huge," said Norm Ellstrand, genetics professor at the University of California, Riverside, and an expert in biotech gene movement. "How could you possibly contain it?"

The findings from an Oregon test plot raise questions about the adequacy of controls for some experimental plants and show that biotech grasses might spread fast and far if approved for commercial use. The peer-reviewed study on bentgrass - used on golf courses - will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The issue of biotech gene flow looms especially large in California, home to dozens of biotech field tests every year, nearly 1,000 golf courses, and activists trying to keep genetically engineered plants out of several counties.

The study, written by scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, concerns creeping bentgrass, a common wind-pollinated grass planted on golf course greens and fairways around the world.

Working together, Monsanto Co. and The Scotts Co. have engineered the grass to withstand the popular weedkiller Roundup, making it possible to chemically kill weeds without harming the grass. The companies say the biotech grass would reduce herbicide use and make for easier weed control.

The companies have applied for permission to sell their novel seed commercially but are headed for a potentially lengthy environmental review, partly because of the EPA findings.

The nonbiotech variety of creeping bentgrass can form hybrids with at least a dozen grasses in the United States. It pops up everywhere from ditches to marshes, raising the stakes for control and generating concern about the spread of herbicide-tolerant strains.

Biotech critics said the study released Monday exposes the dangers of introducing wind-pollinated biotech plants that have relatives in the wild. Similar questions were raised in a June special report by The Bee, "Seeds of Doubt."

"This is ... a pretty clear cautionary tale," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director at the International Center for Technology Assessment, a public-interest group in Washington, D.C. "Thinking we can contain (biotech plants) is increasingly being proven to be false."

In their request for federal marketing approval, Scotts and Monsanto said that escaped Roundup-resistant grasses would be easily controlled by other herbicides and are not expected to have major environmental consequences.

Scotts officials said Monday that golf courses mow their lawns so frequently that the grass would not be expected to go to seed. The company said it won't sell to homeowners.

Despite such controls, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently ordered an environmental impact study on biotech bentgrass before the agency decides its fate. It was the first time the USDA has demanded such a review for a biotech crop. The agency also may increase the isolation area around biotech bentgrass tests next year, based on the EPA findings.

At Scotts headquarters in Marysville, Ohio, officials said because of the environmental review they won't predict when they might be able to sell the grass.

"We want to make sure ... that we can introduce this product with confidence that it is not going to be a risk to the environment," said Michael P. Kelty, executive vice president at Scotts.

Federal records show nearly 20 tests of biotech bentgrass - most on plots smaller than 1 acre - were approved nationwide this year, including at least four in California.

The USDA approved plantings of the herbicide-resistant grass on up to 600 acres in Oregon and Idaho for this year. However, Scotts said actual plantings are confidential.

In their 2003 research, EPA scientists tracked genes from a large experimental test plot of Scotts-Monsanto biotech bentgrass in central Oregon. Their goal was to develop a model for tracing pollen movement.

The scientists set out "sentinel" grasses in pots and sampled dozens of resident plants near a roughly 400-acre company plot.

After pollination, the scientists gathered seeds from targeted plants and grew them in a greenhouse. They sprayed the young plants twice with Roundup to find the ones that didn't die. DNA tests were done on survivors to confirm herbicide-tolerant genes.

Previous academic research typically measured pollen flow in meters, but the EPA team found genetically modified genes in plants up to 13 miles from the test plot. Most of the gene flow was observed within about one mile downwind.

Agency scientists speculated that the scope of the gene flow might be attributed to the size of the test plot. Previous studies, they said, assessed pollen flow from plots that included "several hundred plants" instead of pollen flow from commercial-sized fields.

"The study gives us a way to ask and answer more appropriately these kinds of questions about how far can GM pollen move," co-author Anne Fairbrother said in an interview.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have expressed concern about the spread of herbicide-resistant grass on public lands. The agencies rely on Roundup to control bentgrass, and they fear biotech strains would cost them more time and money to control.

Even biotech backers worry that the pollen problem will set back other efforts to develop new grasses. "(Biotechnology) is a great future for the industry ... if it's not destroyed," said Bill Rose, a leading turf grass marketer from Canby, Ore.

Rose said his own studies on grass pollen persuaded him to engineer grasses with sterile pollen. He opposes the Monsanto-Scotts project, saying that releasing wind-pollinated biotech grass seed is "like turning a stallion loose with no fences."