Cyanide-Producing Grass Kills Cattle, Fuels GMO Debate

Did a genetically modified grass kill a herd of Texas cattle, or were they just another casualty of the ongoing drought?
Tue June 26, 2012 8:49 pm
Flickr | Straaf

A herd of cattle in central Texas has mysteriously died after eating genetically modified grass, CBS News reported this past weekend.  

Preliminary tests have revealed that the grass began spontaneously producing cyanide gas, killing 15 of the 18 head of cattle owned by Jerry Abel of Elgin.

"When our trainer first heard the bellowing, he thought our pregnant heifer may be having a calf or something," Abel told CBS. "But when he got down here, virtually all of the steers and heifers were on the ground. Some were already dead, and the others were already in convulsions."

It's unclear why the grass, which is called Tifton 85, and which Abel says has been on his farm for years, suddenly began producing the poison gas. Dr. Gary Warner, the Elgin veterinarian and cattle specialist who performed the 15 cattle necropsies, suggested that Texas's current drought might have interacted badly with the grass.

"Coming off the drought that we had the last two years ... we're concerned it was a combination of events that led us to this," Warner said. Other farmers in the area have tested their own Tifton 85 grass, and have also found that it also had begun giving off cyanide.

But while scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture perform further tests on the grass, a debate has been brewing over whether the grass's "genetically modified" label given by CBS news is actually correct.

While CBS initially called Tifton 85 a "genetically-modified form of Bermuda," dissenting voices have challenged the report's accuracy in its use of the "GMO" label.

"Tifton 85 is a hybrid between an African Bermuda grass and Tifton 68, a different hybrid produced in Tifton, Georgia," wrote Linda Gentile of Examiner.com last Saturday, quoting the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension service. "Hybridization has been practiced by farmers as long as plants have been grown, and is not the same as GMO all." 

Dr. Larry Redmon, a Texas state forage specialist with Texas A&M, confirmed via blog post that Tifton is indeed a hybrid, not a genetically modified organism, that it has been used by farmers since 1972 without incident, and that the combination of the current drought and the cattle's stressed state may have contributed to their deaths. Redmon also offers tips to help ranchers using Tifton 85 to feed their livestock safely.

The original blog post on the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension project blog, has since been taken down , though it has been reposted by others.

Several other bloggers and commenters have chimed in their defenses of Tifton 85, and condemned the use of the term "genetically modified" in the story.

"A hybrid is a plant made from cross pollination," wrote one CBS News user, jlf799. "Cross pollination happens without human intervention every day... I encourage you to learn more about where your food comes from. Visit a farm!"

"If fear mongering, false and explosive headlines, and faulty or intentionally misleading articles are what are expected of this site than I say keep the story up." chided rusjar, another CBS user:

On Monday, CBS issued a correction to the story that ceded the grass is actually a hybrid.

However, others have seen the incident as another reason to reject the use of genetically modified organisms as food.

"I don't care if this is GM grass or not. I choose not to eat fake food. Natural, organic is the only way to know you will be safe," wrote CBS user th9876, while user @autumnjax tweeted, "

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