Frankenstein grass is poised to invade my backyard, and I welcome it

Much of my summer revolves around grass. The kind you cut. Each year on a day early in May, the billions of little green monsters that inhabit the surface of my yard explode into growth. Each of these blades of grass is a personal enemy. Over the long summer, I am its servant, providing it with food in the form of expensive fertilizer, serving it water that must be sprinkled upon it whenever rain is tardy, poisoning and digging out its weedy enemies, and, every week, giving its fast-growing blade a haircut with the lawnmower.

A lawn is the glory and the curse of the suburban home. Most of you reading this know exactly what I mean. Last Sunday, the hottest day of the year, many of you were out in the hot summer sun, captives of your lawns, cutting the grass. It was welcome exercise in May, but its hot now, and I’m sweaty, and tired, and cutting the grass no longer seems so romantic.

Imagine if you didn’t have to cut the stuff but a few times a summer. The biggest single problem I have with grass is that it just keeps on growing, each blade emulating the energizer bunny. Having a nice-looking lawn should not be a race between you and your grass. Wouldn’t it be great if the grass just didn’t grow so darn fast?

Another problem I have with grass is the mass of chemicals a lawn requires. As a plant, lawn grass is a wimp. It cannot stand up to weeds, which easily out-compete it. Ground clover runs right over it. So does crab grass. Anyone with a lawn can name ten other plants that grow in their lawn, thumbing their planty noses at the grass. It seems like each and every one of these “undesirables” needs a special chemical to combat it.

And then there’s the watering. Lawn grass is by its nature thirsty stuff. If we go a few summer weeks without rain, I must water my lawn. If I fail to do so, my fickle lawn burns up, turning within days into a brown carpet that no rain can revive.

Well, it appears that modern biology is about to end my summer servitude and free me from the tyranny of grass. Scientists at Monsanto, Rutgers University, and Scotts Company (the world’s largest maker of lawn products, including a wide variety of fertilizers, pesticides, and Miracle Gro plant food) are hard at work on genetically altered grasses better suited to my needs.

In its research laboratories at Marysville, Ohio the Scotts Company is field testing varieties of lawn grass that will grow more slowly (“low mow,” they call it). Other strains have improved drought resistance. Still other grass varieties are Roundup resistant, their genes altered so that individuals are unharmed by a chemical (glyphosate) that kills any other plant before rapidly disappearing from the environment. These three improvements, taken together, would end my war with my lawn. I could mow grass in May, July, and September, treat it for weeds with glyphosate once in June, and leave the hose in the garage all summer. Now that’s my kind of lawn.

The inventors of this new lawn grass are clearly having fun. “There’s no end to what you might do,” says Peter Day, director of the biotechnology center at Rutgers University, quoted last Sunday in the New York Times. “You might put a luminescent gene in so that your grass might glow. Or, if your foot stepped on it, it would glow.” It takes a special kind of mind to dream up grass on which your footsteps glow in the dark — my kind of mind.

Of course, not everybody is amused. Last week Jeremy Rifkin, an extreme critic of efforts to develop genetically modified crops, joined by the American Society of Landscape Architects, petitioned the Agriculture Department to suspend all field tests of the new grasses until the risks can be assessed.

Actually, the safety of these grasses is already being carefully evaluated. Research on the new grasses is conducted under the oversight of an army of federal regulators, enforcing a battery of regulations to insure that the genetically modified grasses are safe and do not endanger the environment

Now another voice has been heard, a loud one. Last Monday the National Academy of Sciences took the unusual step of joining with the National Academies of five other countries (England, China, India, Brazil, and Mexico) and the Third World Academy to urge the increased use of biotechnology in commercial plants. By providing more nutritious and disease-resistant crops, the world’s best scientists argue, an increasingly hungry world can be better fed. Research into health and environmental risks must continue, their report said, but urged that we move forward, carefully.

Looking out at my backyard, I can almost see the grass grow, millions of care-requiring little blades thrusting towards the sky. Should I replace them with frankenstein grass? They were growing here long before I came. Shouldn’t plants have some rights too? For a moment, I waver. Then I think of no watering, little chemicals, and cutting the grass once a month, and I know what I’ll do.

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