Tuesday, July 19, 2011

More on the USDA's decision on GMO Kentucky Bluegrass

Remember that article on the blog a couple weeks ago about the USDA’s deregulation of genetically modified Kentucky Blue Grass? This news has received more and more attention since the decision was first made the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend.   
The decision regarding genetically engineered Kentucky bluegrass is disturbing; however the precedent set for future GMO regulation decision is alarming.  There was already a lenient regime governing GMOs, however the Kentucky bluegrass decision reduced the USDA’s oversight even further.  

Tom Philpott explains in his article for Mother Jones that the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology has been the oversight body of GMO foods since the Reagan administration.  However the framework’s organization and regulations created no new laws and only regulated GM through already-existing laws (from a time when genetically engineered food was not a political issue or environmental threat).  The Plant Pest Act is the main law that gave the USDA regulatory power, however this oversight is nearly meaningless, because plant-pest substances are used in the genetic-modification process but are not in the final GM product. The USDA decision agreed with the letter from John Sanford, the president of Scott’s Miracle-Gro Company, that Scott’s genetically engineered grass is not a plant pest because there are no plant-pest genes in the final product.   

Philpott explains that in 2000 the Plant Protection Act broadened the Plant Pest Act a little bit to add regulation of “noxious weeds” or engineered crops that might become herbicide resistant and even more difficult to control.  The Center for Food Safety petitioned to have the GMO grass classified as a noxious weed. The application of Round-Up to the tens of millions of acres of US farmland that grow Roundup ready corn, soy and cotton have allowed the growth of herbicide resistant “superweeds” which require higher doses of herbicide or more harmful chemicals. If this herbicide is also applied to the United States' millions of acres of lawn, herbicide resistant weeds will become even more prevalent and durable.  However the USDA concluded that the GMO grass was not a noxious weed because conventional blue grass is not classified as such. 

The widespread application of glyphosate is also alarming because of the pesticide's linkage to serious health risks including birth defects and kidney problems.  The first two pages of this report from the Pesticide Action Network in the UK outline more health issues: http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/impacts_glyphosate.pdf. 

Scott's can now sell the blue grass without federal approval and requires no federal permits to conduct field trials.  According to this New York Times article by Andrew Pollack, a different type of genetically engineered grass managed to escape company test plots and began to grow in the surrounding areas.  Bluegrass is already able to spread rapidly, because it is wind pollinated. An article on Grist by Tom Laskawy worries that the USDA has just "opened the floodgates" for genetically modified regulation, especially of non-food crops. 

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