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GE Frankengrass--Coming to Your Local Golf Course?

Biotechnology now offers a new golf course grass
By Eli Kintisch
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
05/05/2004

Groundskeeper John Reidelberger mows a test plot of Roundup-ready
Creeping Bent grass.
(Teak Phillips/P-D)

Teeing off soon at a golf course near you: a new fight over grass.

Two multinational companies want to make millions selling a high-tech
grass that they say will resist weeds and be safe for the environment.

Thousands of greenskeepers like St. Louis Country Club superintendent
Tim Burch are eager to buy the new turf, called Roundup Ready Creeping
Bentgrass. He wants to use the new grass to win the war against a weed
called annual bluegrass that plagues golf courses around the country.

The grass, made by the Scotts company, based in Marysville, Ohio, and
Monsanto, based in Creve Coeur, has been genetically altered to be
resistant to Monsanto's widely used herbicide Roundup. Burch could use
Roundup to remove the bluegrass at his course in Ladue without harming
the creeping bentgrass - leaving the course "green as a gourd."

Lining up against the new grass are federal scientists, marking the
first time that government agencies have weighed in publicly against a
genetically modified crop. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S.
Forest Service both fear the bentgrass could lead to the spread of
resistant weeds.

The new turf must receive government approval to be sold. Critics of
biotechnology, including the Center for Food Safety in Washington, and
the Sierra Club, are weighing in on what they say are environmental
risks.

In addition to its fear that the new crop could spread herbicide
resistance, the Forest Service worries that the grass could infect
rare species with the unfamiliar genes.

"We're concerned about the GM grass escaping from where it's growing,
moving into the wild and then establishing adjacent to those rare
grasses," said Forest Service national botanist Wayne Owen. Owen said
adding the new genes would fundamentally alter their nature as "native
species." Similar concern has led the agency to remove non-native fish
that can mate with rare salmon in mountain streams.

Except for its engineered resistance to Roundup, Scotts says, the new
grass is genetically identical to the creeping bentgrass found on
greens, tees and fairways around the world, including courses in the
Midwest. The new grass would allow golf courses to use Roundup or
generic versions to fight weeds; right now there's no herbicide that
spares the bentgrass variety.

Agriculture experts know that pollen and seeds carry novel genes to
neighboring crops. But the developers of the new grass variety say
they can control the spread of the gene. Moreover, said Scotts
spokesman Jim King, the high-tech bentgrass could mean up to a 30
percent reduction in the amount of water and pesticides required for
golf course maintenance; however, Scotts has not published its data.

Scotts and Monsanto applied for commercial approval in April of last
year, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to rule soon
on whether the grass can be sold or not.

Since 1992 the department has approved more than 50 varieties of
genetically modified crops for sale, but the case of altered bentgrass
is unique. While 167 million acres of genetically modified crops
ranging from soybeans to cotton were sown worldwide last year,
creeping bentgrass would be the first genetically modified perennial
species approved for use.

Some supporters of agricultural biotech are leery.

"Among scientists there is a much higher level of anxiety for this
than for other GM crops," said Rick Roush, an ecologist who has worked
with Monsanto on biotechnology projects. "Bentgrass gives us all
pause."

Some unfounded fears

Just what effects genetically modified crops have on the environment
is unclear. When Monsanto began selling crops genetically enhanced to
express a toxin called Bacillus thuringiensis, critics feared insects
would become resistant; seven years later, there's no evidence that
has happened.

Similarly, when the first genetically modified crops were approved for
sale more than a decade ago, many warned that engineered genes would
turn up in other natural plants nearby. But those fears have been
proven unfounded, though nearly all the genetically modified species
now growing on farms lack natural relatives in the vicinity.

Corn or soybeans, for example, are unlikely to appear in the cracks in
your driveway. Varieties of bentgrass species, on the other hand, grow
naturally all over North America.

Even before the era of modern biotechnology, researchers learned the
hard way to think twice before giving new species a place in nature.
According to the National Park Service, from 1935 to 1950 the
government encouraged farmers to plant kudzu to fight soil erosion.
Now the vine has caused hundreds of millions of dollars worth of
damage and is known as the "vine that ate the South."

In the 1980s, the Missouri Department of Transportation planted a
perennial herb called Chinese lespedeza along state roads. Now the
plant, which was grown by other states as well, is spreading all over
the Midwest. At Shaw Nature Reserve for example, the waist-high plant
is taking over restored prairies, said horticulture supervisor Scott
Woodbury.

"It seemed perfectly natural," said Nels Holmberg of the decision to
plant the herb. Holmberg is a consultant who works on wetlands
restoration projects in the state. "But they didn't ask any
ecologists," he said.

Critics worry that altered bentgrass could pass its resistance genes
on to related grasses and those species themselves could become
invasive weeds. At least 13 American species of bentgrass are known to
crossbreed with natural creeping bentgrass, and the newly engineered
version could be just as promiscuous. One of the grasses with which
creeping bentgrass crossbreeds is known colloquially as redtop and
it's found "all over" Missouri, Holmberg said.

Just how crops in the field send genes to plants of the same species
or others is a poorly understood phenomenon called gene flow. In one
trial sponsored by the U.S. Agriculture Department, Rutgers plant
scientist Faith Belanger reported that a small plot of the genetically
modified creeping bentgrass had only limited success crossbreeding at
a distance after a summer test on fields in New Jersey. Scotts
submitted research to the Agriculture Department reporting that pollen
from a plot of 400 plants spread as far as 1200 feet in 2002, but at
that distance, only one in 1,000 seeds of other plants showed they had
received the new gene.

Last summer, government scientists launched a much larger field test
studying how genes traveled from a 400-acre site in Madras, Ore. The
research results have yet to be released, said Scotts spokesman King,
whose firm was involved in the study.

About one-third of roughly 100 scientists polled in a study done this
year by the Weed Science Society of America said they believed that
tolerance to Roundup could increase as a result of the Scotts-Monsanto
product. (Half were skeptical and the rest unsure.) The new plants,
the writers of the report said, "may create new weed management
challenges in several specific and limited sites."

Researchers at the Forest Service worry that rare relatives of
creeping bentgrass could gain the gene for resistance to Roundup.
These include a grass called Howell's bent in Oregon and Henderson's
bent in California, said Forest Service botanist Owen.

In its written petition to the Agriculture Department requesting
permission to sell the grass, Scotts pledges to market the product
only to golf courses, to ship grass seed directly to courses or the
sod growers who sell to courses, and to keep seed separate from other
grass varieties. Golf courses, it pledges, will be required to cut the
grass short, preventing it from flowering and forming seed or pollen.

And "whether we're in business or someone buys us out, the agreements
would still be in place," said Bob Harriman, Scotts vice president for
biotechnology.

Roundup's strengths

Federal wildlife managers worry that if the gene for herbicide
resistance were to spread, either from golf courses or from the fields
where the seed is grown, they'd have fewer safe herbicides available.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is a vital and
environmentally friendly tool for clearing land for native species.
One alternative to glyphosate is imazapyr, the active ingredient in
other sprays.

But imazapyr lasts in soil longer than glyphosate, Bureau of Land
Management officials said, giving managers less flexibility in its
use. Other herbicides that kill grasses are not approved for use on
Bureau of Land Management property, said bureau weed control
specialist Richard Lee. Furthermore, it's uncertain to what extent the
new grass might allow greenskeepers to spray less chemicals.

John Briggs, superintendent of the Fox Run Golf Club in Eureka, thinks
the new grass will allow him to simply "spot spray" for weeds when he
needs to.

But from his view on the links at St. Louis Country Club, Burch is
uncertain of the environmental benefits of the new bentgrass.
Currently, he sprays the natural creeping bentgrass on his course with
fungicide every few weeks and waters the grass as much as five times a
day in the heat of summer. Several experimental plots of the new grass
growing on the country club grounds have convinced him that the new
grass would give him a "silver bullet" against the bluegrass and other
weeds.

But while bentgrass tends to require less water and fungicides than
the others, Burch said, he won't know how the new grass will perform
for sure until he tries it. "I'll baby-sit my greens anyway," he said.

The next battle?

The fight over creeping bentgrass could be a preview over to a much
more raucous melee over another sort of genetically modified grass.
Industry and academic research teams not affiliated with Scotts or
Monsanto are developing genetically enhanced tall fescue grass to be
resistant to disease. Though grown by farmers in southern Missouri and
used in pastures, that grass repels game and has crowded out native
plants and animals in state open areas.

No one has yet to ask the federal Agriculture Department for
permission to sell the new fescues, but experts expect a drag-down
fight if they do.

"That's going to be a bigger controversy," said George Yatskievych, a
botanist with the Missouri Conservation Department and the Missouri
Botanical Garden.

Is it a weed?

Critics charge that giving creeping bentgrass resistance to herbicide
could make a common grass into an invasive weed.

Creeping bentgrass earns its moniker for the runners it extends to
form a thick mat in a pasture or golf course green. But Agrostis
stolonifera seems an unlikely villain in a national debate over the
effects of biotechnology.

Introduced to North America more than 200 years ago, creeping
bentgrass thrives in fields, moist meadows and stream banks. Last year
the U.S. Agriculture Department determined that creeping bentgrass was
not a "noxious weed" as defined by the government. The Weed Science
Society of America came to a similar conclusion in a study released
last week.

"Creeping bentgrass is not a weed," Bob Harriman, Scotts vice
president for biotechnology, said in a phone interview.

But weediness, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. In eastern
Long Island, close relatives to creeping bentgrasses are invading
native environments, according to Nature Conservancy plant ecologist
John Randall. In Oregon's Willamette Valley, where some $12 million in
natural bentgrass is grown each year by seed farmers, the species has
spread its thick mats over a 40-acre swath of Willow Creek Natural
Area in Eugene, Ore.

Scientists in Japan, Australia, Chile, Germany and Britain consider
creeping bentgrass and some of the grasses with which it crossbreeds
weeds. Bentgrass can even be a weed on golf courses, said retired turf
consultant Douglas Hawes of Plano, Texas. "A weed is nothing but a
plant growing where it's not wanted," he said.

Roundup Ready Creeping Bentgrass

Market: Developers say in documents filed with the government that
they'll sell only to golf courses or sod growers who sell to courses.

Benefit: After replacing current grass with the new turf, golf course
managers can kill weeds with Roundup herbicide and preserve the grass.

Developers: The Scotts Co. based in Marysville, Ohio; and Monsanto Co.
in Creve Coeur

Status: The U.S. Department of Agriculture now restricts the planting
of the grass; the developers are waiting to hear if they can sell the
turf.

Scientific name: In its nonenhanced form, the plant is called Agrostis
stolonifera and found in nearly every state.

Reporter Eli Kintisch
E-mail: ekintisch@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8250