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GMO Grass: Coming to a Lawn Near You?

Health + Wellness
GMO Grass: Coming to a Lawn Near You?

Monsanto and Scotts have begun testing the first genetically engineered (GE) grass, intended for both consumer and commercial use.
 
Scotts Roundup-Ready Kentucky Bluegrass, genetically engineered to withstand massive amounts of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is unregulated, will not be labeled “GMO” (genetically modified organisms), and because of the ease with which grass spreads, could in short order contaminate lawns, parks, golf courses and pastures everywhere.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Because Roundup will kill everything except the grass engineered to stand up to it, lawns all over the country will be green, lush—and toxic.

And you won’t know it.

“As these seeds spread and more and more grass takes up that genetic trait, we’ll find organic farmers who want to grass feed their beef, can’t do it because their grass is genetically modified, which is prohibited in organic standards,” said Bill Duesing of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, in an article in CT News Junkie. “GMOs are pollution with a life of its own.”

In July 2011, Scotts Company and Monsanto convinced the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to give the companies a free pass to market Roundup-Ready Kentucky Bluegrass. No testing required.

How did they circumvent the system? GE crops are regulated by the USDA under rules pertaining to plant pests. These rules were created in the 1950s to give the USDA some muscle to constrain the introduction of organisms that would inflict harm to plants. Because genetically modified crops use DNA material derived from natural plant pathogens, they technically qualify as "plant pests."
 
Scotts got around this level of restriction because they avoided using plant pests in the development of the Kentucky Bluegrass. Instead, the glyphosate-resistant gene originated from other plants that were not considered pathogens. Furthermore, the gene was fired in with a gene gun, instead of being carried by a plant pest bacterium. By avoiding the use of plant pests in the engineering process, Scotts has also avoided that regulation trigger.

The second mechanism the USDA could have used to regulate GMO grass is the noxious weed provision under the Plant Protection Act of 2000. It’s well known that bluegrass spreads easily, because its light pollen can be carried for miles on the wind. Inevitably, genetically modified bluegrass will transfer its genes to established conventional bluegrass.
 
That’s one reason Scotts Roundup-Ready grass is so dangerous—it threatens to contaminate every lawn, park, roadside and field in sight, including the pastures used by organic farmers to graze their cattle. This not only puts organic farmers at risk of losing their certification, but it puts the animals at risk of eating GMO grass. Research shows that GMO grain has a devastating impact on the health of animals raised for slaughter. Will GMO grass also be hazardous to animal health, including cattle raised for meat—and people’s prized horses?

Beyond its ability to spread quickly, beyond its potential impact on organic farmers, even more troubling is the fact that once Scotts Roundup Ready grass hits the market, it will lead to a dramatic increase in the use of Roundup, already the most widely used—and potentially harmful—herbicide in the world.

And much of that Roundup will be lurking in places where kids play.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide has recently been described by researchers as, "the most biologically disruptive chemical in our environment." It’s been linked to a litany of health disorders and diseases including Parkinson's, cancer and autism.

Studies have revealed a connection between the use of glyphosate and birth defects in frog and chicken embryos. A more recent study shows that the toxic herbicide was found in the breast milk of American women.

This month, employees of Scotts begin testing the new product at their homes. Scotts’ CEO told shareholders his goal is to have the GMO ready for commercial applications in 2015, and on the consumer market in 2016.

Scotts, which is Monsanto's exclusive agent for the marketing and distribution of consumer Roundup, has much to gain by releasing its frankengrass into the marketplace. According to The Columbus Dispatch, CEO Hagedorn in January told shareholders the market opportunity for Roundup-Ready Bluegrass is substantial. “If you look at the grass-seed category, it’s probably significantly north of $500 million and probably less than $1 billion.” 

The company is determined to protect its projected revenue. When Connecticut came close to passing a statewide ban on GMO grass, Hagedorn reportedly sent a letter to Gov. Dannel Malloy (D-CT) stating that any renewed effort to ban or place a moratorium on the new seed could result in Hagedorn questioning “whether continuing to invest in Connecticut is in the best long-term interests of my company and its stockholders.”  

Monsanto and Scotts are both members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has spent millions to defeat GMO labeling laws and bans, and plans to sue Vermont to overturn its recently passed law requiring mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs. The Organic Consumers Association has called for a boycott of all products marketed by members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

We also urge consumers everywhere to contact Hagedorn and other executives at Scotts to inform them that they will boycott all Scotts products unless the company drops plans to market its Roundup-Ready Kentucky Bluegrass. You can take action here.

Charlotte Warren is a media and communications consultant to the Organic Consumers Association.

Ronnie Cummins is the national director for the Organic Consumers Association.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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