Times spotter | 21.05.2002 00:19
Greens, tees and fairways at the trial courses have been seeded with a strain of GM grass that provides the truest of playing surfaces, and is also cheap and easy for greenkeepers to maintain. The development, by the American seed company Scotts, will make top-quality grass available to ordinary golf clubs for the first time, allowing them to produce the fast, smooth greens that usually only championship courses can afford.
Environmental campaigners say that the planting is an unnecessary and frivolous application of biotechnology that puts wildlife at risk without any serious benefit.
The grass, which should be commercially available in America within two years, is a version of creeping bentgrass, a variety that is accepted as one of the finest surfaces for golf. It is used in its natural form at courses such as Augusta, Georgia, home of the Masters, and Loch Lomond in Scotland.
Creeping bentgrass usually makes for an extremely high-maintenance, if high-quality, lawn. It is very susceptible to weeds and weedkiller, and must be tended by hand for the best results. It is beyond the means of most clubs. The GM variety carries a bacterial gene that confers resistance to a herbicide made by Monsanto called Roundup, or glyphosphate. As a result, greenkeepers can control weeds, especially another grass called annual bluegrass, with Roundup.
Bob Harriman, executive vice-president for biotechnology at Scotts, based in Marysville, Ohio, said that the new grass would solve a key problem of golf course management. “Creeping bentgrass has an exquisite biology for golf. It is a low-growing grass that can be mown down to a tenth of an inch,” he said. “The drawback is weeds. It gets infested with annual bluegrass, which is almost impossible to get rid of without weeding by hand. Our solution is to introduce herbicide tolerance, so it can be successfully sprayed.”
The first trial courses in America were planted with the seed last year. British golf courses are unlikely to be able to plant GM seed so soon: there is a moratorium on new GM organisms, and experts believe that the grass is unlikely to receive regulatory approval for at least a decade.
Andy Newell, head of turf biology at the Sports Turf Research Institute in Bingley, West Yorkshire, which advises the Royal and Ancient Golf Club on grasses, said that there could be unpredictable consequences. “A herbicide-tolerant grass would certainly be useful to the greenkeeper, but only until it gets into weedy grasses. Then it becomes a nightmare.”
Critics of GM crops said that the development was unnecessary and irresponsible. “There are many, many species of grass that pollinate one another, and so the potential for genetic escape is considerable,” Pete Riley, of Friends of the Earth, said. “Also, though people and farm animals won’t eat this grass, we don’t know what the effects on the wild animals and birds that do live in the area would be.”
Dr Harriman said there were no known weedy varieties of bentgrass, making it impossible for the herbicide tolerance trait to cross into natural plants and create superweeds.