GENET archive


2-Plants: GE alwn is about to undermine the suburban male psyche

genet-news mailing list

----------------------------- GENET-news -----------------------------

TITLE:  Self-cutting grass is about to undermine the suburban male
SOURCE: The Sunday Times, UK, by Roland White
DATE:   August 20, 2000

-------------------- archive: --------------------

Self-cutting grass is about to undermine the suburban male psyche.

In spring a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love. A middle-
aged man is far too busy wondering when he should start mowing the 
lawn. When a chap reaches a certain age, the sight of a summer frock 
no longer puts a spring in his step. What sets pulses racing are 
thoughts of top-dressing, mowing, spiking, raking leaves, and the 
application of a balanced fertiliser in autumn.

The lawn is where the middle-aged bloke finds a bit of peace and 
quiet. But now that haven from the stresses of life is under threat: 
scientists in America say they are close to developing the self-
trimming, indestructible, choose-your-own-colour lawn.

Self-trimming grass - which grows slowly rather than cutting itself - 
is one of several genetically modified grasses developed at Rutgers 
University in New Jersey. Companies such as Monsanto, the GM giant, 
and Scotts, the world's largest manufacturer of garden products, hope 
to sell the seed for use on sports pitches, golf courses and, 
eventually, in suburban gardens.

Environmental groups in the US are less enthusiastic. They say that 
grasses cross-breed and hybridise at a rapid rate so genes inserted 
into one species could quickly spread to others with unpredictable 
results for the food chain. About 40 test sites have already been 

But this has not stopped the research. In fact, scientists are 
already talking about creating novelty grasses in a range of colours -
 mostly greens, browns and reds. There could even be a luminous 
grass, containing a gene extracted from luminescent sea creatures, 
which would emit a gentle glow, becoming much brighter whenever 
someone stepped on it.

Experiments involving the slow-growth gene have produced stunning 
results in the tobacco plant. Plants that would normally be expected 
to reach 6ft grew to only 6in. But the research goes further than 
mere size.

"We have experimented with genes from bacteria, fungi and other 
plants," says Bruce Clarke, a plant scientist at Rutgers. "We want to 
produce grasses that can withstand whatever nature throws at them."

It is an awesome prospect. Thousands of British men will have nothing 
to do on a Sunday morning. They will be condemned to a lifetime's 
lurking in the potting shed and fiddling with their sprinklers. 
Centuries of tradition will be rolled flat.

The British interest in lawns stretches back at least 800 years, to 
the time when the palace of Henry II, at Clarendon in Wiltshire, was 
renowned for its lawns. In 1733, Miller's Gardening Dictionary 
advised that the lawn - "a spacious plain adjoining to a noble seat" -
 was best placed at the front, where it could be admired from the 
open countryside for miles around. By the early 20th century the 
British, and the English in particular, had become notorious for the 
attention that they lavished on their lawns.

There is a good example of this in the Asterix series, produced by 
two Frenchmen. One of the cartoon books, Asterix in Britain, 
ridicules the British not only for their love of warm beer but also 
their obsession with lawns. At one point a Roman centurion attempts 
to lead his men across a Briton's front garden but is repelled at 
spear-point. The Briton then returns to tend his grass. "Another two 
thousand years of loving care," he says, "and I think it'll make 
quite a decent bit of turf."

So what is it about men and their lawns? Tom Fort, a man so 
stereotypically English that he is not only a cricket lover but 
fishing correspondent, has written a book on the subject. Our Love 
Affair With The Lawn, published next month, was inspired by a heated 
conversation Fort had with his father-in-law about moss on the father-
in-law's lawn. "His outrage at the notion set me thinking about 
Englishmen and their grass," says Fort.

He telephoned psychologists to ask what all this mowing and top-
dressing said about the modern male. The psychologists thought it was 
all about sex. According to Professor Halla Beloff, the lawnmower is 
a symbol of potency because of all its "throbbing and thrusting in 
front of the male at approximately groin level". Where does that 
leave men who like to jump astride a red, throbbing sit-on mower?

Another expert, Professor Michael Argyle, thought it might all be to 
do with the male love of machines. Fort reported: "He readily agreed 
that men - himself included - much preferred the destructive side of 
garden care to the creative. He said his instinctive response on 
encountering a man with a keen enthusiasm for flowers would be to 
assume he was a homosexual."

The prospect of machinery with which to tinker certainly must be part 
of the appeal. Give men some grass-clogged rotor blades, a can of WD-
40 and a stiff brush and they'll keep quiet for hours. And for this 
we can thank Edwin Budding.

It was almost by accident that in 1830, Budding, an engineer from 
Gloucestershire, invented the lawnmower. He had been trying to design 
a machine to trim the excess material from wool cloth but noticed 
that this technique might also be used to cut grass, which until then 
had been kept down by scythe, sheep or, in the early days, trampling 
with heavy boots.

Budding's idea was not an instant success, but after two years it was 
taken up by Ransome's, an engineering firm in Ipswich. Lawn-mowing 
really caught on, however, in the 1920s, with the growth of the 
suburbs and the necessity to keep up with the Joneses.

There is now a shrine devoted to the lawnmower, the British Lawnmower 
Museum in Southport, where you can see about 300 machines and also 
the mowers of the stars (Vanessa Feltz's mower, the Prince of Wales's 
Atco, the secateurs of Nicholas Parsons).

But perhaps the lawn's greatest contribution to our culture has been 
to the country's sporting life. After the hard grind of laying turf, 
tending and mowing, it was the work of a moment to invent lawn 
tennis, croquet, and even the occasional game of lawn billiards.

And now genetically modified grass could revolutionise these and 
other games. Could luminous grass, which glows on impact, be used to 
settle difficult line calls at Wimbledon or controversial lbw 
decisions in cricket? It could be useful for marking distances at 
shot putt or hammer-throwing.

But it can't be long until the people at Rutgers University develop 
grass that makes a real difference to our lives - that is one that 
not only trims itself but also tips the cuttings on the compost heap.


|                   GENET                     |
| European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering |
|                                             |
|             Hartmut MEYER (Mr)              |
|               Kleine Wiese 6                |
|           D - 38116 Braunschweig            |
|                 Germany                     |
|                                             |
| phone: +49-531-5168746                      |
| fax:   +49-531-5168747                      |
| email:                    |