Grass that killed cows not genetically modified

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.

Gene Hall

Public Relations Director
Texas Farm Bureau
I believe that the only hope for a food secure world is capitalism and reasonable profits for America’s farm and ranch families–that the first element of sustainability is economic survival.
Follow Gene on Twitter and Facebook.

20 Responses to “Grass that killed cows not genetically modified”

  1. So what you are saying is they suffered from prussic acid poisoning?

    • Jim Williams says:

      Yes, it’s called hydrocyanic acid (HCN). It’s like throwing someone in the gas chamber. That’s what they used to do out in CA.

  2. How much risk will we accept for the great taste of beef? On April 25th another case of mad cow disease was confirmed, this time in Hanford, California. Each time cows die on their way to becoming food, the story is the same. Nobody knows why, but we’re reassured there’s no problem. Each time there’s no problem.

  3. Gene Hall says:

    In each of those cases, Clay, no product from the infected animal reached the human or pet food supply chain. Moreover, the only part of the animal susceptible to BSE/Mad Cow is NEVER used. Of course, with regard to this issue, Cyanide/Prussic Acid poisoning of the animals, no part of that animal was used for anything.

  4. Gene Hall says:

    Yes Collene – cyanide is derived from prussic acid, but cyanide is how the media initially reported it, so I’m sticking with that.

  5. Charles Benton says:

    It is my understanding that cyanide poisoning and Prussic acid poisoning are pretty much the same animal.

    • Dr. Jim Williams says:

      It is the same chemical, ie, HCN or hydrocyanic acid. In the plants (Sorghum species such as Sorghum halepense (johnsongrass) and Sorghum sudanese (haygrazer varieties), under certain drought conditions, the plant cell produces HDC (prussic acid) which combines with a glycoside (glucose) like compound to form a complex.

      When the ruminant animal (cow) eats the green forage, mainly leaves, the the forage is digested in the rumen of the animal and the HCN is released, moves into the blood and the toxicity/poisoning occurs.

      And it is quite possible that there were some rogue Sorghum plants involved, ie rhizome Johnsongrass. Don’t ask me what rhizome johnsongrass is.

      Can any of you people read or do a little DD?

      • Johnson Grass is Johnson Grass, it reproduces from both seed and fleshy roots or “rhizomes” that spead underground. Rhizome Johnsongrass just means it came up from the fleshy roots, which can be very hardy.

  6. Gene Hall says:

    I just talked with Lisa Lee Kelly, the Austin TV reporter who originated this story. We did a phone interview that will run tonight on her station in Austin. Thank you Lisa for correcting the record. Gene

  7. Tim Koegel says:

    Great Gene – Now why don’t YOU correct the record? Genetic engineering has no resemblence what so ever to traditional plant breeding. Transgenics by their very nature cannot be produced by natural breeding and are an aboration that we now see adversely affecting livestock fertility and more.

  8. Val Vetter says:

    Though the jury may still be out on what killed those cows, you can’t seriously be telling us that simple, natural or even intentional cross-pollination of plants is the same as Genetically-Modified Organisms coming out of laboratories.

    There is QUITE a difference between the seeds of a tomato plant fertilized by pollen from another nearby tomato plant – and corn or soybeans with DNA removed from a bacterium or other unrelated species installed in it.

    Let’s be clear: a Hybrid is NOT the same as a GMO! Unrelated species cannot reproduce together except in a microbiology lab.

    Were this not true, then implanting the genes from a sheep into a pig so you can get pork chops and wool from the same animal would be a “natural” thing.

  9. “Technically, all plant breeding is genetic modification. Corn itself is a modification of native grasses produced by selective breeding over thousands of years.”

    I think the difference lies in the fact that we are no longer crossing grasses with grasses, but flounder with tomatoes. Bacteria with potatoes. Have you ever seen a fish mating with a tomato? It wouldn’t happen outside a laboratory. Even with cultivating mules, which is still possible in nature without a lab, there is a good chance the offspring won’t be able to reproduce.

    I think we would be safer to let God do the designing and stop tampering with the natural boundaries that He put in place. We cannot possibly conceive of all the potential consequences that come with genetic modification (let’s call it “transgenic engineering”), and yet we take the risk of letting those transgenes loose just to see what will happen. It is irreversible and more risk than I am willing to take.

  10. Gene Hall says:

    Let’s DO be clear. Tifton 85 is not a GMO product, as I said. Also, in the interest of clarification, there is nothing wrong with GMOs either. There is no, zip, nada, cross species food out there, period. Never has been. If humans had not used their God given ability to enhance our food supply, the human race would probably be extinct by now. Virtually everything we eat is a result of conventional or genetic cross breeding.

    Most prussic acid poisoning in the past has been due to “natural” plants, well weeds, like Johnson grass and silver left nightshade. It’s certain no one has been cultivating them.

  11. We had several cows back in the spring that did the exact same thing on oats. It is equivalent to a horse foundering. The cows have gone without for a long period of time and you turn them in on a lush green patch and they gorge themselves until they are bloated and intimately die. After we began having this problem I did some research and found out that you have to progressively introduce the cows to the lush green pasture, starting out with 10 minutes a day. I think it is rather aggravating that the vet and the reporters jumped on the cyanide. The vet should have thought to check out bloating first. I have no vet education and it didn’t take me much to figure this out.

  12. Gene Hall says:

    There’s not much doubt that Prussic Acid is involved in this.

  13. Gene Hall says:

    Hey there Tim – just found your post stuck in the spam filter. We’ve got some adjustments to make. Tim, I know you won’t change my mind, and I’m not about to change yours. I won’t try. There’s no record to correct. I don’t disagree with your contention that biotech is different. I just don’t agree with all the “sky is falling” rhetoric that goes with it. When you comb through the misinformation about the flounder and scorpion DNA in tomatoes and other 100% inaccurate information, then there’s not much left to argue about. Except of course that the AMA, other reputable and unbiased sources and even the EU are backing away from the screeching now. In the EU it’s always been more of a trade barrier than a health concern anyway. Doing away with biotech is a Luddite fantasy that would do no good and a lot of harm.

  14. Gene Hall says:

    Kelly, there’s not much doubt that Prussic acid was to blame here.


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