Monsanto and GM Trees And Grasses

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Food crops are not the only area Monsanto and others have hoped to cash in on with their technology, also with frightening consequences, a range of genetically engineered "designer" trees and forests are also high on their list.

From trees modified to withstand Monsanto's Roundup to trees designed with a reduced lignin content (it's lignin that gives trees their strength and rigidity) to appeal to the paper making and construction industries to "terminator trees" which don't produce seeds. This has met with fierce resistance from activists and scientists alike, but again, to no avail [1] [2] [3] [4]. Already there has been a contamination issue with the GE papaya tree, the world's first commercially planted genetically engineered tree, which enraged local farmers in Hawaii [5].

Grasses are also being modified genetically for the lawn seed industry with the aid of Monsanto. After an earlier plan for the product was withdrawn over concerns by the Center for Technology Assessment and the USDA that it could become an "environmental nightmare" [6], Monsanto withdrew its proposal. However they've apparently changed their minds and have decided to try to market it anyway. Scotts is currently the leading GM-intending lawn seed company. Besides grasses that can withstand applications of Roundup, they say that they hope to engineer a variety of lawn features including grasses of varying colors and even grasses that glow in the dark. "'There's no end to what you might do,' says Peter Day, director of the biotechnology center at Rutgers University, which is working with Scotts and Monsanto to develop the grasses. 'You might put a luminescent gene in so that your grass might glow. Or, if your foot stepped on it, it would glow.'" Nevertheless due to concerns by scientists about cross pollination with non-GM and wild grass the plan is temporarily on hold [7] [8].

Endless Possibilities

And indeed there have now been cases of escape from Scotts test plots. Modified genes from creeping bentgrass, a common golf course grass, were found in non-GM bentgrass up to at least 13 miles away - as that was the the farthest distance measured in the study. Additionally "natural growths of wild grass of a different species were pollinated by the gene-modified grass nearly nine miles away.... The Forest Service said earlier this year that the grass 'has the potential to adversely impact all 175 national forests and grasslands'.... 'The gene really is essentially going to get out,' he added. 'What this study shows is it's going to get out a lot faster and a lot further than people anticipated'.... The bentgrass, moreover, besides having very light pollen - a cloud can be seen rising from grass farms - has very light seeds that disperse readily in the wind. It can also reproduce asexually using stems that creep along the ground and establish new roots, giving rise to its name" [9]. Another release was caused by "a wind storm that swept across Scotts' fields and scattered grass seeds outside the test plot" according to Scotts spokesman Jim King. "Norm Ellstrand, a genetics professor at the University of California, Riverside, said EPA's report raises questions about whether Scotts followed rules to contain grass pollen. 'It seems to me that there is a serious compliance violation', he said" [10].

Update: "In a decision broadly affecting field trials of genetically engineered crops a federal district judge ruled yesterday [February 5, 2007] that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must halt approval of all new field trials until more rigorous environmental reviews are conducted. Citing potential threats to the environment, Judge Harold Kennedy found in favor of the Center for Food Safety that USDA's past approvals of field trials of herbicide tolerant, genetically engineered bentgrass were illegal" [11]. Scotts appealed the decision but the appeal was thrown out March 18, 2008 by the Federal Court of Appeals [12].

"An especially frightening episode [of potential release] was reported recently by environmental author John Robbins" says Gourmet magazine in its 4/05 issue. "Students at Oregon State University, testing a transgenic variant of the soil bacterium Klebsiella planticola, found that its creators had accidentally invented a fungus killer that, had it gotten out into the wild, 'could have ended all plant life on this continent,' said renowned Canadian geneticist David Suzuki. 'The implications of this single case are nothing short of terrifying.'" Unfortunately however this story is highly controversial (as one would expect of so serious an allegation) and at the moment uncertain. For both sides of the issue see [13].

With experimentation now so widespread it has become sadly apparent that the genetic genie now released may well be impossible to get back into the bottle.


A Silent Forest: The Threat of Genetically Engineered Trees

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