“A few years back, several New Zealand scientists began tinkering with petunias, the elegant flowers blooming in many gardens. Playing with pigment genes, they developed biotech varieties with lush dark leaves, their funnel-shaped flowers popping against a midnight backdrop.
The Kiwis wondered if they could sell their flowers. They wrote to regulators in the United States, the country most open to genetic engineering. The Agriculture Department responded, saying the petunias, because of the technology used, did not require its oversight — a promising decision.
Before the biologists went further, however, the work fell to a reorganization. Everyone moved on.
They had no idea they’d blown open a huge loophole in U.S. biotech regulations.
“It wasn’t really considered an enormous deal,” said Roger Bourne, the communications director for the New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research, which developed the petunias. (The institute declined to identify the scientists involved.) In 2007, the biologists, Bourne said, innocently wondered what “the commercial situation would be with this? And asked the question.”
Despite its low profile, USDA’s petunia decision is set to revolutionize the way genetically modified crops from trees to fruit are regulated in the United States. The precedent has created a credible route for developers to get their products to market with less oversight and at a far more rapid, and cheaper, pace.
The petunia pathway does not end government oversight of all biotech plants or animals, especially those intended for human consumption, but it shakes the foundation of the long-standing framework used to oversee these products. It may allow new products to skirt extensive environmental review. Avoid a certain set of genetic resources, the agency seems to be telling startups, and biotech plants can be developed without interference, let alone field trials.
The precedent’s vast potential became clear earlier this month, when USDA announced that it wouldn’t consider a biotech lawn grass developed by Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. under its control (Greenwire, July 6). That decision, likely to face legal challenges, frees the company to develop a variety of modified lawn grasses that can be sold to consumers whenever Scotts deems the products ready.
“There’s nothing really sinister about it,” said Rich Shank, Scott’s head of regulatory affairs.
The company first developed its grasses, engineered to resist the common weedkiller Roundup, using approaches that are regulated by USDA. One such plant, a creeping bentgrass of the type widely used for golf courses, has proved nearly impossible to eradicate from its past field trial site. It has been under review for nearly a decade and is still several years away from a final decision.
That was no way of doing business, Shank said, so Scotts began exploring other options.
“We [began] looking at the process of going with the nonregulated approach,” he said.
Last year, someone at Scotts — Shank said he is uncertain who — got wind that the USDA had approved the Kiwi petunias. Many of the company’s newer biotech grasses followed the same developmental pattern as the flowers. It was an intriguing precedent, and when Scotts wrote USDA last fall asking if its bluegrass would be regulated, it cited the agency’s petunia letter as its supporting evidence.
Given the ratification provided by Scotts, anyone working in plant biotech — say, a scientist developing tree seedlings resistant to ash borer — would be foolish to not follow the de facto guidelines USDA has now established, said Drew Kershen, an agricultural law professor at the University of Oklahoma who has in the past consulted for the biotech industry.
“If I were a developer in any other company, I’d say, ‘Oh my goodness. I can do this,'” he said.
Nearly any small or large biotech developer should be able to adhere to these standards, which could spur independent scientists to return to the field, said Roger Beachy, the former head of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and one of plant biotechology’s early pioneers, developing techniques to induce virus resistance in vegetables.
“Academics have been using what tools they can to get things done,” Beachy said. “Maybe this can encourage academics to move forward. We’ve had very little participation from [them].”…”
Coming in 2012: Genetically modified front lawns and the mass spraying of neighborhoods and playgrounds with RoundUp
“(NaturalNews) Thanks to a recent admission by the USDA that it does not have the regulatory framework to even regulate GMOs, the world of biotech is set to unleash a tidal wave of genetically modified seeds upon the United States. This is the upshot of Scotts Miracle-Gro challenging the USDA over its GMO grass seeds, to which the USDA threw in the towel and essentially announced it can’t technically regulate many GMOs at all.
Scotts Miracle-Gro is now moving full speed ahead on its GMO yard grass product, which could theoretically be introduced into the marketplace as early as 2012. This is a home consumer yard grass seed which, of course, resists glyphosate (RoundUp), and its introduction into the marketplace would almost certainly result in millions of homeowners across America planting these seeds in their yard and then spraying RoundUp across their entire lawn as a “treatment” for eliminating weeds.
RoundUp, in other words, may be coming soon to a neighborhood near you. And it’s not just the lawns, either: This combination of Scotts GMO grass and RoundUp chemicals could be used on playgrounds, schoolyards, community centers and parks. Once this goes into production, there will be virtually no place your family can go in America that isn’t contaminated with genetically modified grass seeds and toxic glyphosate chemicals….”