Keeping Our Eyes on the Green


The scientists who have been working for years to perfect a variety of biotech enhanced grass understand the truth in that statement. Now they may be learning it all over again, in the wake of the recent news about biotech golf courses in our future. America’s vigorous system of regulating biotechnology is seeing to that.

Not every golfer pays attention to horticulture, but those who do know that many of their favorite courses feature a kind of grass called creeping bentgrass. This plant is known for its fine leaves of blue-green color. It grows in dense patches that are ideal for everything from one of Ben Crenshaw’s legendary putts to one of Tiger Woods’ smashing drives.

Creeping bentgrass requires so much maintenance–lots of water, constant mowing, frequent aerating, and large amounts of fertilizer–that few people grow it on their lawns at home. But golfers love the stuff, and so golf courses like to provide it for them.

Biotechnology may soon offer golfers an improved product. Scientists have bred a genetically enhanced form of creeping bentgrass that resists a particular kind of herbicide. And that means golf courses will be able to enhance the environmental safeguards we all appreciate while controlling weeds. Everybody wins, from golfers who want a great sporting experience to course managers trying to keep down costs to environmentalists who worry (sometimes too much) about herbicide use.

Last week, however, the media reported on a new study showing that the biotech variety of creeping bentgrass may breed with related species many miles away. The enemies of biotechnology hit the panic button and starting screaming about the invention of “superweeds” that nobody can destroy. As usual, most of what they said was utter nonsense.

For one thing, just because biotech grass can resist one form of weed killer doesn’t mean that it will resist all or them. In this sense, biotech grass won’t ever get “out of control.”
And once again, the point must be made – the study did not conclude that the biotech enhanced grass was unsafe in any way. That’s because it isn’t.

Yet the study did raise several important issues, and they are worth addressing.

First of all, it proved that our methods of regulating biotechnology really do work. We must recognize that the study in question was based upon observations made at a test field–i.e., breeders were busy learning about this kind of biotech grass, which has not been approved for widespread use. And if they’re going to learn about something, they need to test it. Who can argue with that?

The folks in white lab jackets want to know many things about this new plant, including whether it can pollinate with plants in remote locations. They learned that this could in fact happen. Although most of the gene flow took place within a mile downwind of the biotech field, in one case it was observed several miles away.

This situation–discovered and publicized by the biotechnologists themselves–now requires a solution. And the solution surely isn’t to use the finding as a propaganda tool, as the enemies of biotechnology are trying to do.

The next, logical step is to learn how this gene flow might be prevented, perhaps by creating physical barriers to the pollination. A golf course that uses bitoech grass, for instance, might be required to surround itself by trees that would block the spread of wind-borne pollen. Another possibility is to let golf courses to what golf courses do best: Mow their lawns so often that the grass doesn’t have a chance to pollinate in the first place. Finally, it might be made available only to certified users.

Whatever the case, not a single blade of this biotech grass will show up on a golf course anywhere until all of these questions have been answered to the satisfaction of serious scientists. The experiments are ongoing: Just this year, the government has approved 20 separate tests of biotech creeping bentgrass. It’s all part of a detailed assessment.

At some point in the not-to-distant future, these assessments will be complete. We’ll know how biotechnology can help us build better golf courses. And when we do, we’ll be well on our way to benefiting from even more promising developments, such as drought-tolerant grass. While green golf courses that require less water can get some people real excited – I can’t help thinking about the tremendous contribution a drought-tolerant grass will provide in our efforts to conserve water as we feed and nourish a growing population.

It all goes to show that the grass may be greener on the other side of the fence. But you still have to mow it.

Bill Horan, a Board Member for Truth About Trade and Technology ( grows corn, soybeans and grains on a family farm in Northwest Iowa. Over 50% of the crops grown on his farm are produced under contract for various end-users.

Bill Horan

Bill Horan

Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.

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