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Government Affairs: GMOs in the managed landscape

March 5, 2015 -  By

grass-test-tubesGenetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become controversial over the past couple of years as the science used to manipulate the genetic code of both plants and animals has become more sophisticated.

While much of the controversy over genetic engineering (GE) has revolved around food crops, recent announcements of two nonfood GMOs—a strain of Kentucky bluegrass developed by Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. and the development of a strain of loblolly pine developed for the forestry industry by ArborGen—have the anti-GMO forces in an uproar.

Anti-GMO groups are concerned that once released into the environment, the genetic material in these plants could crossbreed with other plants, spreading the GE material to other plants with unknown consequences.

At the crux of the complaints about these two new strains of GE plants is that neither was subject to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) testing and approval process that most other GE plants have been through.

In 2011, USDA made the determination that GE plants that were not “plant pests” and did not contain genetic material from an organism classified by the USDA as a plant pest were not subject to their jurisdiction.

Neither Kentucky bluegrass nor the loblolly pine is considered plant pests, nor was any of the genetic material used in creating the new strains considered to be from a plant pest. According to USDA, both plants can be released at the discretion of the companies that created them.

Scotts now is testing the GE seed in several venues. This new strain of Kentucky bluegrass, according to Scotts, will improve the color of lawns, require less mowing, require less watering and be resistant to glyphosate herbicides.

Jim King, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Scotts, said field-testing of the new bluegrass strain will continue for the next couple of years with a gradual roll-out of the seed for commercial landscape use over that time. At this point there is no firm schedule for making the seed available through consumer channels.

Scotts set off a firestorm among the anti-GMO crowd when it announced it was introducing its GE bluegrass. Immediately, anti-GMO forces started an online petition, began advocating boycotts of Scotts products and started letter-writing campaigns to Lowes and Home Depot urging them not to carry the new seed when it comes to market.

Home Depot already has shown it is sensitive to public pressure. Last year the company began requiring its growers of greenhouse and nursery plants to label plants that had been treated with neonicotinoids in response to public concern over the impact of neonics on bee populations. Home Depot also is looking into whether growers can eliminate neonics completely from plants offered in their garden centers.

Adding to Scotts’ challenge is that the general public is not on the side of GMOs. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in association with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, found a majority of the general public (57 percent) believe genetically modified (GM) foods are generally unsafe to eat, while 37 percent says such foods are safe. On the other hand, 88 percent of the scientists polled in the same study said they believed GE food was safe. This public distrust of the science of GE will be a major hurdle for Scotts to overcome.

Humans have been manipulating the genetic code of organisms to suit their needs for millennia. We have corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes and squash today because the Mesoamericans, in what is now Mexico, began to select and crossbreed these plants thousands of years ago.

What has changed is the speed with which we now can alter the genetic code of plants and the scope of what we can do. What used to take many generations of selection and crossbreeding now can be accomplished in one generation. And while traditional genetic crossbreeding had to be done sexually within the same species, we now can take a gene from almost any species and insert it into a completely different species.

The gap between what the GE technology can produce and what the public is comfortable accepting is Scotts’ challenge. Contributing to this is the position taken by USDA that it has no regulatory jurisdiction over plants that do not contain genes from plant pests. While this decision frees genetic scientists from the regulatory scrutiny of USDA, the public is not comfortable with this lack of oversight.

Scotts and other green industry plant breeders have a big challenge in selling the public on GE plants. Essentially, Scotts is blazing the trail. If it is successful in getting the public to accept its new Kentucky bluegrass seed, more GE landscape plants surely will follow.

Photo: iStock.com/20824621

About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at gregg.robertson@conewagoventures.com.

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