That’s a funny line, but I can’t keep myself from thinking that perhaps the virtues of weeds haven’t been discovered for a simple reason: They don’t have any!
This is the time of year when Americans all over the country go to war against weeds. I don’t mean just on the farm, where weed control is a constant battle. Suburbanites are our brothers in arms, for they fight weeds on their lawns and in their gardens. With Memorial Day weekend right around the corner, many of us are breaking out our lawnmowers and weed whackers. The season of lawn care is upon us.
Indeed, it might be said that we have an obsession with the grass around our homes. “Although there are plenty of irrational aspects to life in modern America, few rival the odd fixation on lawns,” writes Ted Steinberg, a professor of history and law at Case Western University, in his new book American Green. “Fertilizing, mowing, watering–these are all-American activities that, on their face, seem reasonable enough. But to spend hundreds of hours mowing your way to a designer lawn is to flirt, most would agree, with a bizarre form of fanaticism.”
At least it’s not an unhealthy form of fanaticism: Well-maintained lawns keep our neighborhoods looking nice, they force us off the couch and out the door, and they even have environmental benefits because they prevent soil erosion and cut down on greenhouse gases. According to one estimate, lawns soak up 12 billion pounds of carbon each year.
NASA scientists have calculated that lawns cover almost 50,000 square miles of the United States–an area larger than the whole state of Pennsylvania. Ordinary household lawns take up most of these square miles, but golf courses account for a growing portion of them.
Keeping weeds off these lawns is a big business. Steinberg estimates that Americans spend $40 billion on their lawns each year, and a big chunk of that cash goes toward fighting the war on weeds.
The war may seem never-ending–a kind of quagmire that bogs us down every summer. Yet biotechnology may be on the verge of helping Americans not only wipe out weeds, but also worry less about their lawns. “What if grass were engineered to require less water, fertilizer, and pesticide?” asks David Wolman in the April issue of Wired. “What if it required fewer trimmings by toxin-spewing mowers? What if lawns were customizable?”
That’s the future some researchers envision, as they work to create new varieties of grass that are tougher, healthier, and prettier. Wolman describes one experiment in Ohio that involves dwarf grass: It “doesn’t grow as tall and, therefore, doesn’t need as much mowing. For the everyman, that means fewer hours with a lawnmower. It also means enhanced color: The same amount of chlorophyll is concentrated in a smaller blade. The grass on this side of the GMO divide is, literally, greener.”
Who doesn’t appreciate the potential of that? Less lawn doctor, more quality time with the kids. Well, there’s that other group of fanatics: the enemies of biotechnology. They find a way to oppose just about everything.
These activists fret about GM grass giving rise to “superweeds” that can’t be controlled through conventional methods of eradication. Their aim is to create a new kind of bogeyman in the public mind–a “Frankenfood” of the lawn. But this is silly. Lawns that do a better job of fighting weeds are developed to resist a very particular form of herbicide–other types of herbicide can kill GM grass with ruthless efficiency. Superweeds are a myth.
Genetically-improved grass is not a commercial product yet–it’s still going through the regulatory process that governs all biotech plants. I hope it’s approved, but I’m happy to wait. In the meantime, I’ll ponder a question: What is an anti-biotech activist? Are they truly worried about my little micro-climate in front of my house? Can they force me to believe doing things the ‘old way’ is really the best way? Perhaps it’s the ever changing nature of science that has them all aflutter. It’s their choice of course, to speak fear and monsters and such. I say, “Get off my lawn!”
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both road side retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org) a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.