It’s the stuff of science fiction or horror, the plot of some M. Night Shyamalan flick. But it actually happened! And, it was practically in my own backyard. A field of hybrid Bermuda grass that’s been happily feeding a Texas cattle rancher’s small herd for the past 15 years spontaneously started producing cyanide gas, killing 15 of his 18 cattle.
K-EYE TV in Austin, TX broke the story yesterday, sharing how the mysterious mass death of the herd has prompted a federal investigation. Just a few short weeks ago, Jerry Abel opened the gate to a field containing lush Tifton 85 grass and let his herd in for the first time this year. It was a hot Texas day, and the cattle were eager to chow down on some tall, green grass. According to the news story, the grass is a genetically-modified version of Bermuda grass. It’s higher protein and specifically designed to be better for feeding livestock, making hay, and withstanding fluctuations in weather.
Not long thereafter, the bellowing began. Thinking one of the pregnant heifers was possibly trying to have a calf, they raced to the field — only to find all the steers and heifers on the ground in agonizing pain.
Choking up, Abel says, “That was very traumatic to see, because there was nothing you could do, obviously, they were dying.”
The preliminary autopsy report revealed that the grass, which had been successfully feeding Abel’s herd for 15 years, had spontaneously started emitting poisonous cyanide gas. Right now, they’re guessing the mutation was prompted by the extreme drought Texas ranchers faced last year, although it’s all just speculation.
Watch the video
Local farmers, prompted by the news, have begun testing their own Tifton 85 grasses, only to find that they, too, have fields that are now toxic with cyanide.
Scientists at the United States Department of Agriculture are testing the various grass samples, trying to determine exactly what caused the mutation.
What does it all mean?
I couldn’t help but draw the parallel to the 2008 version of the movie The Happening, written and directed by M. Night. Shyamalan. In the film, the plants mysteriously start producing a neurotoxic gas that prompts humans who get a whiff of it to commit suicide. The message? The plants are angry with us! They want us to stop destroying the planet!
While I don’t believe the Tifton 85 grass is sentient, I do think this recent turn of events is a warning.
Messing with genetics is dangerous and unpredictable. We need to remember that. If a hybrid grass can suddenly mutate and start producing cyanide, then some of the widely-circulated theories about the dangers of the terminator gene don’t seem so unreasonable. Do we really want these unnatural genes released into the world, where they’ll take on a life of their own? Genetic contamination is real. Plants cross-pollinate. It’s natural. It’s wild. It’s the way the world works.
We can’t continue to assert that genetically-modified plants are safe, are contained to specific fields, are controlled. It was an illogical argument before, and in the wake of this most recent news from central Texas ranchers, it’s even more untenable.
Read the full story at K-EYE TV here.
ETA: The original network news stories all reported this grass to be a “genetically-modified hybrid.” In truth, it is a first generation, naturally-bred hybrid. In my mind, this makes the story no less cautionary, although it is a bit less sensational.
One Facebook commenter had this to say: “I have a degree in biochemistry. GMO is simply speeding up or creating a new ‘hybrid’ in a much faster lab setting than the slow natural (think Natural Selection) setting of nature. Both methods involve HUMANS intentionally combining genes that wouldn’t ordinarily be combined, or would take hundreds or thousands of years to SAFELY combine. At the end of the day, it is humans manifesting our arrogance that we have it all figured out, are smarter than mother nature and somehow know better than nature does about what’s good for us.” I agree with her opinion.
While it is certainly true that this Tifton 85 grass falls into the category of a cross that you or I could casually make in our own garden, many of the comments in the discussions circulating around the various reports done on this news story make me want to point out something. “Genetically-modified” and “hybrid” are not automatically two mutually exclusive terms. If you see something described as an “F1 hybrid,” that’s merely describing that it’s a first generation genetic cross between two parent cultivars. It does not automatically mean that there was no genetic modification done to the plant, nor does it necessarily mean that the plant is “safe” and “natural.” The word “hybrid” is like the word “flower.” A tulip is a flower, and so is a rose. But a rose is not a tulip. Likewise, “hybrid” is an umbrella word that can describe both genetically-modified hybrids and naturally-bred hybrids. One is “natural,” and what gardeners and farmers have always done. The other is unnatural and can have dire and unforeseen consequences.
Furthermore, even plants that are naturally-bred hybrids can be genetically-altered post-breeding to introduce sterility. This is often the case with commercially-produced hybrids. In order for most hybrid plants to be commercially viable, they have to be sterile. They are too costly to produce otherwise. That’s so that the seed patent owner can sell you new seeds each year. As in the case of Tifton 85, this sterility can be accomplished naturally through selectively breeding the plants. But more often than not it is accomplished in laboratories through the marvel of biochemical engineering (either by using genetic-modification or chemicals to interrupt the expression of genes).
So, what does this mean for our the discussion? Even if we all agree to label the Tifton 85 a “hybrid,” you still have to marvel that the creator of this grass variety didn’t think it would matter that a parent cultivar for their hybrid was a known cyanide-producing African grass. Many grasses do this under stress, but the Tifton 85 was specifically bred not to. It was created expressly as a feed grass for livestock and designed to hold up well to fluctuating weather conditions, including drought. The manufacturer of this grass thought it was “safe,” that they could accurately predict the outcome of their cross-pollination, that they’d bred out the tendency for the the plant to produce cyanide under stress. Unlike with Johnson grass or Sorghum (two other popular grasses that produce cyanide under stress), the manufacturers never warned their customers about this potential outcome. I think it was because 1) in their conceit, they never imagined it was possible, or 2) because in their greed, they didn’t want to unnecessarily scare off buyers.
There is more to discuss, but I wanted to update this post with some of the more interesting revelations of the past day in the hopes of discouraging repetitive comments and encouraging even more fascinating conversations!
(photo by agrilifetoday)