Creeping bentgrass can cross-pollinate with related wild species and spread uncontrollably.
Earlier this month, the Department of Agriculture quietly greenlighted the first-ever genetically engineered grass. The GE creeping bentgrass, a product of Monsanto and Scotts, is genetically engineered to be immune to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.
You may not have heard of it, but GE grass has quite a horror-film backstory. Once destined for golf courses nationwide, Monsanto first petitioned USDA for approval in 2002. Scientists were very worried: like all GMOs, the GE grass could cross-pollinate with related wild species, and spread uncontrollably. Because their tiny seeds and even lighter pollen can be carried on the wind for many miles, and they have lots of relatives they can cross-pollinate, GE grasses are even more assured to spread and contaminate other plants than other GE crops, like GE corn or GE soy, are. And like all of Monsanto’s GE products, they were engineered with the sole purpose of selling more Roundup to douse on them, which has resulted in dramatic increases in the harmful chemicals entering our waters and native ecosystems. So when the GE grass did escape, farmers and regulators would have a superweed to deal with, one that would require even more toxic herbicides to kill.
Despite these concerns, the process moved along. The chemical companies that engineer patented GE seeds first do outdoor experiments—trials that are overseen by USDA, albeit usually poorly. And the 2003 GE grass experiments turned into a spectacular nightmare for USDA, Monsanto, and Scotts.
First, the Center for Food Safety successfully sued over the field trials, resulting in a federal court finding them unlawful. Remarkably, USDA had failed to analyze the environmental impacts of the GE grass escaping the trials. It got worse from there: as we and others had warned, the GE grass did indeed escape the trials and spread, even contaminating a National Grassland over a dozen miles away. A USDA investigation ended in a half a million dollar penalty.