Suburban Genetics: Scientists Searching for a Perfect Lawn
By David Barboza
New York Times
July 8, 2000
MARYSVILLE, Ohio, July 7 -- Standing in long rows in Greenhouse No. 3 at the Scotts Company's research laboratory here are pots of grass that could be a suburbanite's dream come true.
The grass, which Scotts hopes will eventually carpet every lawn and golf course around the world, is genetically altered to withstand applications of the most potent weed killers and remain healthy and green.
Scotts, the world's largest maker of lawn and turf products, has other varieties in the works as well. One, nicknamed "low mow" by company scientists, has been designed to grow at a slower pace, thereby reducing the need for a lawn mower. Other strains could be drought-resistant, or bred to flourish in the winter.
The company is also working on genetically modified roses and other flowers that will bloom longer than the ones found in nature. And some scientists at Scotts are even talking about someday developing grasses in different colors.
"There's no end to what you might do," says Peter Day, director of the biotechnology center at Rutgers University, which is working with Scotts and Monsanto to develop the grasses. "You might put a luminescent gene in so that your grass might glow. Or, if your foot stepped on it, it would glow. You could also make novelty grasses."
The products, which are still in various stages of development, are not expected to reach the market for at least three years. But Scotts executives hope the company will then reap enormous profits in a market they believe could reach $10 billion.
First, though, they must contend with critics who are horrified by the notion of blanketing the world with genetically altered grass.
Environmental activists, already concerned about the genetically modified crops now growing on more than 70 million acres of American farmland, have attacked research laboratories experimenting with genetically altered grass and trees out of fear that the plants will fundamentally alter the environment. Others are speaking out against this latest form of genetic experimentation.
"This is going to put biotech in everyone's backyard," says Jeremy Rifkin, a longtime opponent of biotechnology. "It's going to open up a national debate, because everyone has a lawn. You're going to see a 'not in my backyard' phenomenon."
The American Society of Landscape Architects, with more than 14,000 members, joined Mr. Rifkin on Friday in petitioning the Agriculture Department, calling for the agency to suspend all field tests of the new grasses that Scotts is conducting.
"We are highly concerned with the use of genetically modified plants because they could potentially affect the whole ecosystem of native plants," said Janice Cervelli Schach, president of the society. "We want bodies outside of Monsanto and Scotts to assess these risks."
Many consumers are also wary of the genetically altered grass. "This whole genetic thing has gotten out of hand," said Nancy Childs, a 29-year-old restaurant owner who was loading her cart with some black-eyed Susans at a Home Depot store in Chicago. Genetically altered grass would be "convenient, but it's not normal," she said.
Scotts, however, says it is moving cautiously. It says it is conducting intensive research under the oversight of federal regulators to ensure that the new products are safe and to avoid the maelstrom that has erupted, at least in Europe, over genetically altered crops. The Agriculture Department regulates where Scotts can plant the experimental grass, and Scotts must obtain the department's permission before it can transport the grass anywhere.
"These products will give you more beautiful lawns and gardens," said Mark R. Schwartz, head of the branded plants group at Scotts, which is based in Columbus, Ohio. "And if there are problems with the technology, then it won't come out. But we're following all the rules, taking all the precautions."
Scotts, which is best known for its lawn fertilizer, Ortho pesticides and Miracle Gro plant food, is far ahead of its competitors in the race to create the raw material for perfect lawns. "That's how we make money, beautifying the world; trying to generate more beauty with less maintenance," Charles M. Berger, the company's chief executive, said. "And we'll use every tool in the toolbox. Biotech, that's just another tool in the toolbox."
While a company in Australia has been trying to create a blue rose through the use of biotechnology, scientists at Scotts have already developed genetically altered petunias and geraniums in laboratories in St. Louis.
Scotts says it will develop an even larger arsenal of "smart" plants with longer lasting blooms, different colors, and in some cases built-in pesticide.
Genetically altered grass, however, may be the first bioengineered lawn product to reach the market. Scientists at Monsanto and Rutgers have been working with Scotts for several years now to develop the new grass strains.
The first grass likely to be available is creeping bent grass, a strain that is used on golf courses around the world. Despite its name, it is a sturdy grass even when it is clipped as short as a quarter of an inch to form putting greens. But creeping bent grass is expensive to maintain and prone to infestation by weeds. David Bishop, a spokesman for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, says that is why genetically altered turf would be welcome on greens and fairways throughout the nation.
"Grasses on golf courses are maintained at the very edge of their tolerance," he said. "If you could produce a grass more tolerant at an eighth of an inch, that's less likely to go into stress and may require less water, that would be great."
Scotts executives say the first creeping bent grass could be Roundup Ready Grass, which is grass genetically modified to survive spraying of Roundup, the popular weed killer developed by Monsanto. The new grass could drastically reduce costs and maintenance at golf courses, and a drought-tolerant variety could reduce the amount of water needed to keep the turf healthy, Scotts executives say.
But activists are already sabotaging test plots in protest. Last month, a group calling itself the Anarchist Golfing Association caused more than $300,000 worth of damage at an Oregon research center that was testing genetically altered grass for golf courses.
Within the last year, activists have also vandalized a university lab in Minnesota and torched a research site belonging to Boise Cascade, the giant paper company, which had been experimenting with genetically altered trees.
Crystal Fricker, president of Pure Seed Testing Inc., a grass seed company in Hubbard, Ore., said that early last month activists destroyed pots of genetically altered grass at her company. But not before the company made some troubling discoveries about how widely the plants' pollen might be dispersed. "We were doing risk assessment and we learned pollen can flow over 1,000 feet," she said last week. "It could go 3,000 feet. And it cross-fertilizes," mating with a different strain of grass and creating a new genetically modified breed.
Ms. Fricker said the company's studies raised serious questions about whether genetically modified grass should be introduced into the environment. "Our concern is mostly with pollen flow," she said. "It's going to be a huge problem to keep this stuff contained."
Scotts says it is working to assess the risks. Pollen is unlikely to spread on golf courses, executives at Scotts say, because the grass on putting greens is not allowed to flower. As for lawns, the company says it may adopt a Monsanto technology called Terminator, which makes seeds sterile. That could prevent genes from jumping from one backyard to another.
Pedro Windsor, a 50-year-old minister in Chicago, says he would welcome the "mow me less" lawn as long as it did not harm the environment. "We probably pollute the environment more just by mowing the lawn," he said while buying some cedar mulch for his yard.
Scotts became involved in biotechnology in 1998, when it formed an alliance with Monsanto to produce genetically altered grass and ornamental plants. (Scotts also has the exclusive license to sell Roundup to consumers who garden.)
Much of the research is done here in Marysville, where Bob Harriman, the company's chief scientist and a former Monsanto employee, is working to bring genetically altered grass and flowers to market.
Recently, Dr. Harriman was in Greenhouse No. 3, holding a small pot of grass up to the light and marveling at its promise. "These were sprayed three days ago," he said, fingering the bright green blades of the grass, which had been used in a test of the Roundup weed killer. "They are in great condition. You can tell they have a nice green leaf structure."
Dr. Harriman says that a few months ago, scientists here used what they call a gene gun to shoot a bacterial gene into a tissue of grass in the hope of making it immune to Roundup. Days later, tiny blades of the new grass sprouted in a petri dish. Now, there are dozens of pots around him with full tufts of genetically modified creeping bent grass.
Dr. Harriman says that once the outcry over genetic engineering subsides, Scotts and other companies will will churn out countless varieties of grasses and ornamental flowers.
And the visions are not just of verdant lawns. Why not purple lawns? Or orange roses? What about seeds that would let the University of Florida use orange and blue grass seed in its football stadium, for example?
When the Scotts products do come to market, however, the company says it will not use the word "biotech" on the labels.
The word is already generating negative feedback in consumer surveys. "It seems unlikely we'd ever call them biotech," Mr. Berger of Scotts said. "We'd call them superior plants."
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