By Gene Hall
Wow, what a feeding frenzy on the Internet. News reports and the Internet pop culture echo chamber condemned a “genetically modified” grass—a Bermuda hybrid called Tifton-85—for producing cyanide that killed some cattle in Elgin, east of Austin. What a boon for anti-GMO activists! Only one problem, though. Tifton-85 is not “genetically modified” as we’ve come to understand the term. Oops.
Tifton-85 is a hybrid, produced by another Tifton product and an African grass. It was developed the old fashioned way, by more conventional, plant breeding techniques.
Technically, all plant breeding is genetic modification. Corn itself is a modification of native grasses produced by selective breeding over thousands of years. The much vilified GMO process—also proven techniques—is not a factor in this story, though the reporting seems to be clueless of this.
Here’s the rest of the story. Many grasses, including Johnsongrass and the common weed silver leaf nightshade, will produce cyanide, especially under stress. The hot and dry conditions we have now are very stressful. The African Starr grass, from which the Tifton-85 was produced, can also develop cyanide. No one knows for sure what happened to the cows in Elgin, but that has led to no apparent restraint in some self-appointed experts.
I want to make it clear that I am not a plant scientist or a rancher, but I’ve talked to a bunch of them. There is no panacea in restricting plant breeding to more conventional means. Genetic modification is a process, not a product, and it has no bearing on the unfortunate dead cows in Elgin.
We used to depend on the media to get these kinds of basic facts right. If they don’t, they are no different than the activist blogger with an ax to grind.