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Killer grass…?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 8, 2012

Sounding like a bad anti-drug campaign, I came across a story that purported to tell the public about a mass killing related to “killer grass”. Now before any of our reefer friends start writing in about the benefits of cannabis or before your mom’s throw out your stash, the kind of grass in question is not the recreational kind but the MOO kind…that is prairie type grass killed some grazing cattle; or so the story goes.

An added twist to the story, as if killer grass was not enough, is the claim that the grass turned to homicide because it was genetically modified. The variety in question, Tifton 85, was developed to be more nutritious and remain digestible longer than ‘normal’ Bermuda grass. It was developed in 1983 and was used on the field in question for more than 15 years. It had apparently started to produce “cyanide gas” which poisoned the cattle killing about 15 of them.

Within moments the internet was awash of articles claiming that GM grass suddenly turned deadly and that proved we should not ‘play god’ and stop genetic modification because it would inevitably lead to monsters and no among to testing could prove otherwise; look it took this grass 15 years to turn bad. On the surface this may be a reasonable assumption. I have mentioned myself that although I am all for GMO, I also don’t trust corporations to self-regulate; that it is in the lack of proper oversight that something like killer grass could happen.

Then of course I put on my skeptic cap and looked at the whole thing again.

Now, the article quoted was from a local CBS station and not from a more reputable source…sorry CBS. Next, it stated the preliminary cause of death was cyanide gas…so it may not have been cyanide at all. And it struck me as kinda weird that this grass was okay for over 30 years and this is the first instance of poisoning. Okay, I say 30 years now because the Tilford 85 has been grown since the 80s although this field has only had the grass since the late 90s. I did a little research and found out this was NOT the first case of cyanide poisoning of grazing animals. In fact, it occurs regularly every 3 to 5 years or so.

The other case though did not involve Tifton 85 or any kind of GM grass at all. The most consistent culprit was Johnson grass. I found out that cyanide is a common plant defence against predation, although usually only in quantities to harm small insects and slugs. However, under times of stress like the drought that is currently enveloping farmland across the continent, cyanide production increases and becomes more concentrated in the plant. Let’s not forget either that cows eat A LOT of grass, magnifying the dosage even more.


So, it seems that it was cyanide but as a natural defence of plants that happens occasionally, not the result of some genetic horror story. Of course it gets better. The original article, and the ones plastered around the internet, said the Tifton 85 was a GM plant…and it is kinda. It is old school GM where you take two plants, give them some drinks and nice music and let them cross pollinate. It’s referred to as a F1 hybrid. So, at least in the way we picture Genetic modified organisms, it doesn’t even qualify on this account.

So, complete debunking of the story that mutant GM grass kills, but with headlines like:

You know you’re going to hear people bring this up as evidence that we should stop ‘playing god’ with nature. Well, like god, this story is fiction.



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