The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) recent decision to exempt genetically engineered (GE) Kentucky bluegrass from federal approval has reportedly stirred debate over how the agency regulates biotech crops, with some critics calling the outcome “a blatant end-run around regulatory oversight.” According to a July 1, 2011, press release, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) dismissed a petition from the Center for Food Safety and International Center for Technology Assessment claiming that GE bluegrass developed by Scotts Miracle-Gro for golf courses should be regulated as a “noxious weed” under the Plant Protection Act. After conducting its assessment, APHIS apparently declined to regulate “Kentucky bluegrass, GE or traditional,” as a federal noxious weed because it does not contain plant pest components.

As a July 7 New York Times article further explained, GE crops “are regulated under rules pertaining to plant pests” that “are really meant for pathogens and parasites, not corn stalks.” But because most GE crops use plant virus DNA and bacterium to switch on pest-resistance genes, the new strain of plant usually falls under USDA’s jurisdiction. Scotts Miracle-Gro, however, “deliberately avoided” viral DNA and bacteria, and instead used a gene gun to insert genetic material from other plants. The company then reasoned that its product could not be regulated as a noxious weed, an argument which USDA evidently found persuasive over the petitioners’ objections.

Meanwhile, in a July 1 letter to Scotts Miracle-Gro, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack reiterated that the company should be prepared to “work closely with a broad range of stakeholders in developing stewardship plans for testing and commercialization of the product.” In particular, Vilsack noted, “producers wishing to grow non-GE Kentucky bluegrass will likely have concerns related to the gene flow between the GE variety and non-GE Kentucky bluegrass …, and those involved in the use of non-GE Kentucky bluegrass in pastures will likely have concerns about the loss of their ability to meet contractual obligations.”