The Travels of a Bioengineered Gene

New York Times editorial

The Travels of a Bioengineered Gene

Published: September 30, 2004

A study showing that genes from a type of genetically engineered grass
migrated much farther than anyone had thought possible virtually
demands a careful reassessment of how such plants are regulated. We
must ensure that the genes from genetically engineered plants do not
escape into the wild and wreak havoc in natural ecosystems.

The grass, a creeping bentgrass developed by Monsanto and Scotts, has
been modified genetically so it can tolerate Roundup herbicide, which
is made by Monsanto. Golf course owners who use creeping bentgrass on
their greens and fairways could adopt the bioengineered version, then
spray Roundup to kill weeds without killing the grass.

There is no evidence yet that any of the genetically engineered crops
already in wide use in this country, like modified corn, soybeans and
cotton, have caused any significant environmental harm. It is also true
that the bentgrass at issue has characteristics that could make it more
difficult to control than most crop plants. It is a perennial that does
not have to be planted every year, its pollen is small and light and
thus easily carried by the wind, and it has a dozen or so wild
relatives that it can cross-pollinate.

For all these reasons, the Agriculture Department, which must decide
whether to allow the genetically engineered grass to be marketed, is
conducting a full-scale environmental impact assessment. This is the
first time it has subjected a genetically engineered plant to such
rigorous scrutiny. The concern is that the herbicide-resistance genes
may spread to relatives in the wild, thus complicating the task of
controlling vegetation with Roundup herbicides in many landscapes.

Bentgrass hardly ranks with global warming, nuclear waste or air and
water pollution as a critical environmental problem. But the study
raises broader questions about regulating biotechnology.

When assessing the likelihood that genes will spread from bioengineered
plants, scientists typically study small test plots and look for the
effects nearby. Scotts initially estimated that the pollen would travel
only about 1,000 feet. But when Environmental Protection Agency
scientists studied gene dispersal from some 400 acres of genetically
modified grass, they found that some genes reached sentinel plants of
the same species as far as 13 miles away and wild relatives almost 9
miles away. Whatever they decide about bentgrass, regulators will need
to reassess whether they are looking hard enough and far enough for the
potential impacts of genetically modified plants.

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