September 21, 2004

Golf course genetic engineering

Thanks to two major agricultural corporations, suburban golfers might have to wrestle with some issues that have up until now been addressed primarily by farmers and people with an special interest in agriculture.

Monsanto, producer of the glyphosate herbicides known as Roundup, and Scotts, a major producer of "lawn and turf products," are hoping to market a variety of bioengineered bentgrass for use on golf courses that is resistant to Roundup weedkillers. Their plans might be delayed for a while after a recent study showed that the engineered gene is capable of spreading much further into the surrounding environment than previously demonstrated.

Critics of bioengineering have raised concerns that once an engineered gene is introduced into the environment, it will be impossible to contain, and that the consequences of "escaped" human-made genes are potentially dangerous and impossible to predict.

All of this seems plausible. What's confusing me is why this new study, which demonstrates that engineered genes can spread for 13 miles, is so much more helpful to bioengineering critics than the older studies which showed that the genes can spread up to 0.62 miles. All the studies have shown that the genes will spread, and there's no arbitrary distance that anyone could specify that would avoid the critics' argument about the unforeseen consequences of human-made genes in the environment.

But, be that as it may, if this new study helps convice policymakers to SLOW DOWN the approval of bioengineered crops (or grass), it will be a good thing.

As an aside, note how Monsanto is burning the candle at both ends. On one hand, they develop and market Roundup as an effective weedkiller. On the other hand, they are testing and developing crops containing a gene that makes them resistant to Roundup. This is good strategic thinking that will please Monsanto shareholders, at least in the short term. In the long term, will the Roundup resistance gene spread to the extent that Roundup isn't a useful herbicide? Will small mutations in the gene lead to "superweeds" that resist not only Roundup but also many other herbicides? Perhaps that scenario can be resolved by Monsanto, if they can develop an herbicide that targets plants with the Roundup resistance gene. Now that would be a great strategy.

Posted by Carey at September 21, 2004 04:52 PM