Science in Society Archive

USDA/APHIS Creeping towards Regulatory Shutdown

Genetically modified bluegrass deregulation marks the beginning of the end of a toothless regulatory regime for GMOs. Joe Cummins

Regulating GM crops

Genetically modified (GM) grass tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate, intended for use in golf courses, parks and athletic fields, has become a focal point for the biotech industry and academe bent on killing the regulation of GM crops.

Before going into the bluegrass saga, the basics of GM crop regulation in the United States should be outlined. First, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is entrusted to ensure the safe development of agricultural biotechnology by regulating field-testing, interstate movement, and importation of GM organisms (GMOs). APHIS determines whether a GMO is as safe for the environment as its traditional counterpart and hence can be freely used in agriculture. APHIS uses the term ‘biotechnology’ to mean recombinant DNA technology, or genetic engineering (modification) of living organisms [1]. In addition, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates several biotechnology products, including pesticides produced by plants or microorganisms and non-pesticidal substances such as industrial enzymes, biosensors, and bioremediation agents produced using microorganisms [2]. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which determined that bioengineered foods should be regulated like their conventional counterparts in 1992, has not to-date established any regulations specific to bioengineered food [3]. APHIS has undertaken regulation of the testing and release to the environment of GM crops on the basis that the GM crops must not pose a threat to unmodified crops while any threat to humans and farm animals is not considered by APHIS, or by any other agency.

Behind the Grass

A lawn grass company Scotts Miracle-Gro has been at the forefront of development of GM lawn grass. In 2003, Monsanto Company and the Scotts Company submitted a proposal to deregulate creeping bent grass (Agrostis stolonifera) tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate. The primary purpose of the GM creeping bent grass was to control the spread of annual bluegrass (Poa annua).  Scotts was fined $500 000 in 2007 after the bent grass escaped from field test sites in central Oregon and established itself in the wild. More recently the grass, presumably from a field test in Idaho, was found growing in nearby southern Oregon. Scotts Miracle-Gro next produced GM Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), tolerant to glyphosate to combat annual bluegrass. Scotts Miracle-Gro claimed to have drastically altered the method of genetic engineering in creating GM Kentucky bluegrass by eliminating the use of genetic components from bacteria and viruses known to cause disease in crop plants. In that way Scotts Miracle-Gro was able to side step the regulation by USDA/APHIS.  USDA administrators agreed that the regulations had been side-stepped and allowed Scotts Miracle Grow to market the GM Kentucky bluegrass without restriction [4].

All it takes is a letter to Vilsack

In a letter addressed to the US secretary of Agriculture, Scotts Miracle-Gro included the details of the genes and methods used to transform Kentucky bluegrass. They used a biolistic method, also known as a gene gun, rather than the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaceans, a plant pathogen, as a vehicle for introducing the glyphosate tolerance gene. This means that the DNA transfer does not involve Agrobacterium or any other plant pest regulated under the Plant Protection Act.

The genetically ‘enhanced’ bluegrass expresses a more glyphosate tolerant form of 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase from Arabidopsis thaliana. Other donor genetic elements include: ubiquitin promoter from Oryza sativa - actin intron from Oryza sativa - alcohol dehydrogenase 3’ UTR from Zea mays. Kentucky bluegrass is not a federal noxious weed. It is listed as an agricultural seed, and is commonly grown on both home and government lawns [5].

How APHIS defines a “regulated article”

APHIS defines a “regulated article” as [5]: “Any organism which has been altered or produced through genetic engineering, if the donor organism, recipient organism, or vector or vector agent belongs to any genera or taxa designated in Sec. 340.2 (Code of Federal Regulations TITLE 7--AGRICULTURE CHAPTER III--ANIMAL AND PLANT HEALTH INSPECTION SERVICE), and meets the definition of plant pest, or is an unclassified organism and/or an organism whose classification is  unknown, or any product which contains such an organism, or any other organism or product altered or produced through genetic engineering which the Administrator, determines is a plant pest or has reason to believe is a plant pest. Excluded are recipient microorganisms which are not plant pests and which have resulted from the addition of genetic material from a donor organism where the material is well characterized and contains only non-coding regulatory regions. Any living stage (including active and dormant forms) of insects, mites, nematodes, slugs, snails, protozoa, or other invertebrate animals, bacteria, fungi, other parasitic plants or reproductive parts thereof; viruses; or any organisms similar to or allied with any of the foregoing; or any infectious agents or substances, which can directly or indirectly injure or cause disease or damage in or to any plants or parts thereof, or any processed, manufactured, or other products of plants.”

The regulatory status of crop produced biopharmaceuticals is ill-defined suggesting that such products engineered to exclude plant viruses and bacteria, as well as the wild and weedy relatives of GM crops inadvertently pollinated by the GM crops, are consigned to the APHIS limbo and ignored by that agency.

GM bluegrass volunteer menace

 It seems inevitable that unregulated GM Kentucky bluegrass producing vast quantities of small windborne pollen will become a serious volunteer (weed). The annual bluegrass will soon be replaced with a Kentucky bluegrass that cannot be controlled with glyphosate alone.  The control of volunteers is already a major problem following planting of GM crops including maize, oilseed rape, soybean and cotton, as they reduce yields unless controlled, which is expensive. Glyphosate-tolerant crops have greater potential to become problem-volunteers than conventional crops [6] and are indeed fast becoming volunteer weeds [7]. Volunteer weed populations of GM oilseed rape have been established along transport routes in Japan [8] and in western Canada [9]. Oilseed rape seeds remain dormant but viable in the soil seed bank for up to 10 years (10).  

To conclude

There is growing pressure to shut down regulation of GM crops in the United States. USDA’s dependence on laws that predate genetic engineering and the placement of accountants rather than scientists  as key regulators of GM crops is paving the way for the final shut down.

Article first published 30/08/11


  1. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), 2nd August 2011
  2. The United States Environmental Protection Agency  (EPA), 2nd August 2011
  3. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 2nd August 2011
  4. “Cries of lax regulation after U.S.D.A. ruling on bluegrass”, The New York Times, 5th July 2011,%20&st=cse
  5. Shank R. Senior Vice President  Scotts Miracle-Gro  Re: Conformation of Regulatory Status Letter to Hon. Tom Vilsac Secretary US Department of Agriculture,  13th September 2010
  6. Cerdeira AL, Duke SO. The current status and environmental impacts of glyphosate-resistant crops: a review. Journal of Environmental Quality 2006, 35, 1633-58.
  7. Owen MD, Zelaya IA. Herbicide-resistant crops and weed resistance to herbicides. Pest Management Science 2005, 3, 301-11.
  8. Kawata M, Murakami K, Ishikawa T. Dispersal and persistence of genetically modified oilseed rape around Japanese harbors. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 2009, 16, 120-6.
  9. Yoshimura Y, Beckie HJ, Matsuo K.Transgenic oilseed rape along transportation routes and port of Vancouver in western Canada. Environmental Biosafety Research 2006, 5, 67-75
  10. D'Hertefeldt T, Jørgensen RB, Pettersson LB. Long-term persistence of GM oilseed rape in the seed bank. Biological Letters 2008, 4, 314-7

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There are 2 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

susan Comment left 1st September 2011 20:08:15
Why address any letter to the US secretary of Ag. I have sent volumes to US reps with copies that have been collecting dust for decades. We in the US are being told to wake up, we are awake! But our government has assumed control in a pseudo democracy that has NO credibility in asserting it militaristically on a global scale.

Todd Millions Comment left 11th September 2011 16:04:38
Susan's point is correct. Any reality based arguments will be resented and shunted asside on no more than precedent and 'princible',with any pre paid minister's and nearly all beuracrats. Indeed if you come across an exception too this rule-DON'T point it out nor bring attention too them,or the rest of the herd WILL cut them out for 'special attention'and will stop at nothing short of exposure. Despite living in a whoreocracy,based on learned helplessness(see;christianity),one tool remains-BLACKMAIL.This is acceptable if your motives are for right reasons.Then the ends do justify the means.In my experince,once you have your target and weapon lined up,the first thing the say- Canadian federal ag minister should know about it is-you already have your information crowbar up his butt,and there is nothing he can do about it.THEN explain too him calmly and clearly WHAT he Will do-or else.THEN give him a noble sounding reason to explain his actions publicly.Lord knows he doesn't have the wit too do this himself or he wouldn't be the ag minister. This is how its done(see;The Idiot Cycle.),And we must be come better at it than the bio,nuc oil and arms mafias fast.Our aims must be the difference.I could us some help on the health minister-same principle but they always are about an order of magnitue more stupid.