Genetically Modified Petunia Update: Breeders Take Swift Action, USDA Requires Import Authorization

Petunia ‘African Sunset’

The horticulture industry entered the GMO (genetically modified organism) spotlight inadvertently in May, owing to some stray genetically engineered (GE) petunias that snuck into the germplasm several years ago without anyone’s knowledge. While this attention is nothing new to the agricultural community, where unregulated GMO crops turn up from time to time, the startled horticulture industry is in the beginning stages of grappling with the issue.

On May 16 USDA issued this bulletin to its stakeholders regarding the unauthorized sale and distribution of genetically engineered petunias in the U.S. Testing is ongoing and other varieties may be added to the USDA-APHIS list. APHIS will distribute more information as results are confirmed. Richard Coker, Public Affairs Specialist for the USDA, says so far the USDA has only found color phenotypes in the affected petunias. On May 25, 2017, APHIS updated the list of petunia varieties requiring import authorization. To date, the import authorization list includes 35 varieties. Four have been added as recent as June 1, including ‘Sanguna Salmon,’ ‘Whispers Orange’ (a.k.a. ‘Dekko Orange’), ‘Supertunia Rose Blast Charm’ (a.k.a. ‘Mini Rose Blast’), ‘Supertunia Raspberry Blast’ (a.k.a. ‘Raspberry Blast’) and ‘Hoobini Pink.’

When asked how the USDA is working with independent breeders that fall outside of trade organizations such as the American Seed Trade Organization and AmericanHort, Coker shared the following response:

“The APHIS Deputy Administrator for Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS) describes the main distributors as the top of a pyramid, and they handle the importation and distribution of the petunias. These main distributors are then working with the breeders, growers, and retailers toward the base of the pyramid and in that way they will eliminate them from the market.  In addition, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will be stopping all petunias that are known to be GE no matter who the importer is.

“Those entities at the base of the pyramid will either destroy material on site or get a permit to ship it back to one of the major companies we are working with.”

Selecta Klemm first reported the presence of genetically engineered material in its petunia stock on May 2 to the USDA after the German Grower Association informed it about research results from the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira, stating that orange petunias it had tested turned up positive for genetically modified material. Knowing authorities in the EU and North America do not authorize genetically modified varieties of petunia, Selecta acted quickly to inform its business partners and clients about the situation, in order to halt distribution of affected varieties. Like other companies involved, Selecta continued to take swift action, testing its entire petunia assortment through external certified labs to see if other varieties contained genetically modified material.

“Our most successful stand-alone variety, ‘Headliner Night Sky,’ is GMO free, along with all of our other color lines,” says Richard Petri, Director of Marketing for Selecta. “We continue to test at the seedling and germplasm level to make sure that we are commercializing 100% GMO-free petunias from now on.”

Breeders Move Fast to Go GMO-Free
Evira reported in April that it would pull eight petunia varieties from sale after the discovery of GMO material. American Takii’s ‘African Sunset’ petunia, one of the first orange-colored petunias on the North American market, prompted the investigation.

General Manager Steve Wiley says the discovery came as a shock to the company because it prefers conventional breeding practices and doesn’t even have the facilities to engage in any type of GMO breeding. Like other breeders, Takii is testing its petunia germplasm and following USDA guidance to confirm test results to clean up its stock. The good news is Takii’s newest introduction, a fragrant purple petunia called ‘Evening Scentsation,’ is GMO free.

“The bad news is we had to destroy a lot of plants in the greenhouse,” Wiley says. “It has been a bit of a setback for us on the breeding side, but we have a strong germplasm, and should bounce back without a problem.”

How much the discovery of GMO petunias will set back breeding, if at all, remains undetermined. One thing is certain, breeders will pay closer attention to the parentage of their petunia stock moving forward.

“We will be much more careful when crossing with external varieties in the future,” Petri says. “All external varieties will be going through certified labs for a transgenetic check to ensure we can use them for breeding.”

Growers, with the inconveniences of destroying affected varieties, canceled shipments, finding alternative products, and getting the word out to their customers fresh in their minds, will be scrutinizing their purchases. Petri says they are likely to ask for GMO-free certificates to pass on to their customers.

The Industry Pulls Together to Spread the Word
Breeders have been coordinating with their distributors, who are working with growers to recall the affected material. While this has been a hassle on both the grower and distributor side, it has helped that the news arrived toward the end of spring season, rather than at the height of it.

“The timing of this announcement has been such that the bulk of the inputs we sold to our customers had already been sold to consumers,” says Jesse Hensen, Customer Service and Vendor Relations Manager at Eason Horticultural Resources, Inc. “The USDA message states that consumers don’t need to do anything with the plants since they pose no risk to human health. We’ve only had a couple of customers who have had to destroy the plants they still had. I’ve also had several customers call to express concern that there might be additional plants the USDA will add to the list in the future.”

Communication from the USDA down through the supply chain has been critical to getting the word out and minimizing the impact on the industry, said Craig Regelbrugge, Senior Vice President of AmericanHort, in a question-and-answer interview with Greenhouse Grower. AmericanHort has worked closely with the USDA and the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), to distribute accurate information through multiple channels. Long term, Regelbrugge says he sees the current events as “an interesting teaching moment.”

“As time goes on, there will be more attention and value than ever paid to genetics, lineage, and plant history, and supply chain relationships will continue to deepen as a result of this experience,” he says.

Regelbrugge adds there is a significant offshore element to this issue that is of concern because it is so important to keep the petunia market open and running smoothly. The companies involved have worked hard to be very transparent, and their responsiveness has been instrumental in staying on top of the issue and making sure that everyone understands that the affected varieties can’t be imported.

The Consumer Jury is Still Out
Now that the initial shock-and-awe of the GE petunia issue is wearing off, one long-term uncertainty lingers – that of image. GMOs often carry negative overtones when it comes to food crops. Will the same disapproval attach itself to a non-food item, especially an annual?

“The image damage is still considerable, and we, the industry, have to be alert, as non-governmental organizations might blow up this case still,” Petri says.

And how will retailers and consumers respond to the news?

Several of the retailers Greenhouse Grower talked to said their customers are unaware of the issue and had so far expressed no concerns.

Jennifer Schamber of Greenscape Gardens in Manchester, MO, who said that many of her customers hadn’t heard about the issue yet, says Greenscape focuses on plant function, more than color. Consumers like color, but they are more responsive to buying what will help them create a healthier landscape in their yard. GM petunias wouldn’t be a good fit for them because they are concentrating on pollinator health, human health, environmental health, and so forth.

“Our native plant sales are up,” she says. “These are plants are grown from open-sourced seeds, which ensures an increase in biodiversity in our communities. Educated consumers want to make better choices, so we need to be sure we offer them. Our industry is at a true turning point, and this petunia debacle proves it. The future value of our industry lies in the function and purpose of our products, and we need to demonstrate this value to consumers. Eye candy and novelty plants are fun, but we need to focus on what really matters.”

Editor’s note: As the genetically engineered petunia story continues to develop, we will update this article with the latest developments.

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