A new GMO variety of tall fescue turfgrass that's resistant to glyphosate herbicides has been cleared for cultivation by USDA.

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USDA clears GMO tall fescue
By Mateusz Perkowski
Capital Press | December 30th, 2014

The USDA has cleared the way for cultivation of genetically modified tall fescue without conducting an environmental review of the new crop.

The Scotts Miracle-Gro company developed the glyphosate-resistant turfgrass variety with genes from other plants through a process known as “biolistics,” in which a “gene gun” essentially shoots DNA-coated metal particles into the plant cell.

Because the method does not involve the use of a plant pest for gene transfer, the USDA has no authority to regulate the tall fescue, according to a document recently released by the agency.

Controversial biotech crops that are also resistant to glyphosate herbicides — such as “Roundup Ready” alfalfa and sugar beets — were made using a soil pathogen, which required USDA to study the plants before deregulating them.

Scotts began to re-orient its biotechnology program after a regulated variety of genetically engineered creeping bentgrass escaped a field trial in Central Oregon in 2003, which eventually resulted in a $500,000 civil penalty from USDA.

Since then, the bentgrass cultivar has been stuck in regulatory limbo as the USDA has not approved it to be grown commercially without restrictions.

However, over the past four years the company has persuaded the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that several biotech varieties of Kentucky bluegrass and St. Augustinegrass did not come under its regulatory jurisdiction.

“They’re able to get around APHIS’ authority with their new techniques,” Carol Mallory-Smith, a weed science professor at Oregon State University.

Genetically modified tall fescue, which Scotts has also altered to grow “shorter, thicker and darker green,” is the latest grass crop to be cleared by USDA after Scotts notified the agency that it planned to begin field testing the variety.

Capital Press was unable to reach Scotts for comment, but some in the grass seed industry say the company’s activities have sparked concerns.

Resistance to glyphosate — while potentially convenient for homeowners — can turn grasses into troublesome weeds for farmers.

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons.