It looks like Roundup-resistant Kentucky bluegrass (RRKB) seed will hit the market in the next couple of years. This past summer the seed was tested in the lawns of some Scotts Miracle-Gro staff members.

“I think we will see limited commercial activity the following year [2015], and I think, if all goes well, much more [activity] in the consumer market in 2016,” Scotts CEO Jim Hagedorn told the Columbus Dispatch in a January 2014 article.

The genetically modified organism (GMO) controversy touches all parts of the agricultural industry. But this GMO release is different in ways that merit its examination.

Kentucky bluegrass is the most widely planted grass seed in North America. According to NASA’s Ames Research Center, there are nearly 50,000 square miles of lawn in America, making it by far the nation’s most widespread irrigated crop. Unlike the GMO food crops that have been released, Kentucky bluegrass is a perennial, which brings on a new set of pollen escape concerns. An annual food crop takes a lot of input. If you neglect it, or cut it down, it’s done. Not so with perennial grasses. Kentucky bluegrass is a forage grass, and many are concerned that the same genetic contamination issues that have happened in food crop applications will also happen in the forage grass market. This is a big concern in the organic, grass-fed beef industry.

Could sod farms, golf courses, sports fields and even home lawns be shut down or forced to pay royalties like many food crop farms have been forced to do when this proprietary gene (CP4 EPSPS) is determined to have contaminated the field and the turf is now transgenic? Its release could drive up the amount of glyphosate sprayed in the U.S., but wouldn’t that also cause a decrease in the use of other herbicides and potentially harmful practices? There have been studies documenting a significant reduction in overall amounts of pesticides used on GMO crop fields. The Conservation Technology Center at Purdue University estimated that GMO food crop management can save up to 1 billion tons of soil lost through erosion annually because farms can reduce the number of times they till the soil trying to kill weeds and weed seeds.

This release has been in the works since Scotts partnered with Monsanto in 1998 to develop a global venture called “Smart Plants.” The idea was to leverage the same technology that developed GMO corn and soybeans to the commercial and home lawn grass market. The first venture in GMO turfgrass was with creeping bentgrass. Think of it, eliminating Poa annua, and its increased pesticide requirements, from bentgrass golf greens with a few simple glyphosate apps. How many tons of pesticides would be eliminated with such a grass? But how quickly could a resistant strain of Poa annua develop?

What happens when the glyphosate-resistant gene escapes? This could and did happen after a 2004 GMO creeping bentgrass planting in Jefferson, Oregon (Google it). This was not far from “the grass seed capital of the world,” Willamette Valley.

The new glyphosate-resistant Kentucky bluegrass won’t be regulated, nor even be considered a GMO product by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), based on a 2011 decision. RRKB slips through because it’s not a food crop and Kentucky bluegrass isn’t considered a possible noxious weed, even though the USDA agrees that it does meet its own definition. Its “parent source” of genetic material isn’t from a known pest and isn’t shot into the host plant utilizing known pest material as a carrier, so it won’t be regulated as virtually all GMO food crops are.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ISTOCK.

It’s an ignorant, emotional argument to say that this technology should be immediately banned, but it’s equally ignorant and shortsighted to argue that this type of technology doesn’t warrant cautious levels of regulation and oversight.

Ross Kurcab is a certified sports field manager, consultant and owner of Championship Sports Turf Systems. He was the head turf manager for the NFL’s Denver Broncos for 30 years and holds a bachelor’s degree in landscape horticulture/turfgrass management from Colorado State University. You can reach him at turf444@gmail.com.