For most homeowners in cool, northern climes, a rich green lawn of Kentucky bluegrass, manicured to golf course-like specifications, is the standard against which success or failure is measured. Whole industries have spread like kudzu in catering to that often unattainable goal, from grass seed, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to weekly lawn care and maintenance.
Towering over the industry like a mighty oak is Scotts Miracle-Gro (NYSE:SMG), spreading over virtually every aspect of a lawn and plant's lifecycle, producing both chemical and organic solutions to meet the needs of homeowners. And now it's ready to introduce genetically modified organisms into its product mix that may make it every bit as controversial as Monsanto (NYSE:MON).
Although it's had GMO grass seed under development for years, sales of grass seed fell in 2013 and were down another 1% in the last quarter. It needs something to revitalize sales, so the news that Scotts will be testing in the wild a variety of Kentucky bluegrass resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide is setting off alarm bells, as it threatens to accelerate the spread of superweeds and even enter the food chain.
At the company's annual shareholder meeting last week, Scotts announced that employees will be testing a Roundup Ready grass seed at their homes with an eye toward commercial production next year and introduction into the consumer market by 2016. Like farmers who grow Roundup Ready food crops, homeowners will be able to plant GMO Kentucky bluegrass, spray their lawns with the herbicide, and not worry about harming the grass.
However, the introduction of a GMO strain into lawns across the country would be even more insidious than the crop variants, because the Agriculture Department is leaving this seed unregulated. It exempted the strain in 2011 because its creation avoided the use of plant pathogens, so Scotts will be left to self-regulate its proliferation.
As a libertarian-minded person, I prefer a laissez-faire approach to regulation, but only when there are consequences for actions taken. By abdicating responsibility and permitting consequence-free outcomes, the potential for harm grows exponentially. Monsanto has a long record of suing farmers who've found their non-GMO crops cross-contaminated by its GMO seeds, and organic farmers had their lawsuit tossed last year after the chemicals giant pinky-swore it wouldn't sue more farmers if its seeds only contaminated their crops a little.
We're already seeing the proliferation of superweeds caused by the overapplication of Roundup herbicide, and the USDA's response to that was to approve a new herbicide-resistant seed by Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) to combat the problem, ensuring that down the road a new resistance will develop. A GMO Kentucky bluegrass strain will likely multiply that effect as it spreads around the country.
Not many people are aware that in many parts of the country, Kentucky bluegrass is considered a problem plant that competes with and crowds out native grassland species. The nation's prairies are particularly under siege as the grass blankets the ground and smothers almost every other plant beneath it. The USDA even acknowledges that the GM version of Kentucky bluegrass (and the non-altered version, too) is such a seriously invasive plant that it could be considered a noxious weed, a designation given only to a handful of harmful plants. However, it decided not to regulate it because not enough harm was found to have been caused by the non-GMO type.
With a GMO variety released into the wild, as Scotts is proposing, the potential for having it escape -- not only onto neighbors' lawns but into grasslands where cattle and other animals can graze on it -- is substantial. Organic dairy farmers and beef cattle ranchers face the threat of losing their organic status after their animals chew through a field full of GM bluegrass.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told Scotts that concern over cross-contamination with non-GMO varieties was such that it "strongly encourages" the chemicals company to do all in its power to minimize the occurrence. It's worth noting that Scotts actually tried to get a GMO version of golf-course turf introduced, but the USDA rejected it after the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management feared that its spread to some two dozen bentgrasses would wreak havoc on the environment. There are some 500 species of the bluegrass genus.
With Scotts Miracle-Gro mowing down worries about the release of genetically modified organisms into the wild, those who seek a more organic solution will be left feeling blue.
Rich Duprey and The Motley Fool have no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.