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.

Topics: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

More From Annuals...
Helleborus Frostkiss Penny's Pink

February 24, 2018

Allan Armitage on Hot New Perennials for 2018

Here are some of the perennials Armitage thinks may increase in value in 2018.

Read More

February 20, 2018

12 New Poinsettias and Succulents for Holiday Sales, Crafting, and Landscaping

Poinsettias and succulents are both in-demand products with today’s consumers. Here’s a look at some of the newer introductions available for retail sales in 2018 and 2019.

Read More

February 19, 2018

All-America Selections Names Latest Variety Winner, Announces New Display Gardens and Judges

All-America Selections (AAS), the 85-year-young non-profit plant trialing organization, had a very busy month of January.

Read More
Latest Stories

January 4, 2018

Stand-Out New Varieties That Keep D.S. Cole Growers Co…

See what new varieties stood out to Doug Cole, owner of D.S. Cole Growers in Loudon, NH, this year.

Read More

December 19, 2017

34 New Flowering Annuals to Brighten Up Your Product Mi…

Consumers will soon have the opportunity to experiment with colorful, big-impact blooms in their containers and landscapes. Here are 31 new introductions to consider that will color-up your product mix.

Read More

November 14, 2017

Eason Horticultural Resources Introduces New Decorative…

Created by Hishtil Nursery in Israel, the new decorative forms of calibrachoa feature an 8- to 12-inch stem and come in four colors of calibrachoa blooms on top.

Read More
Helianthus Sunfinity (Syngenta Flowers)

September 3, 2017

Growing Tips for Helianthus Sunflower ‘Sunfinity…

This annual sunflower is a profuse bloomer with strong branching that produces multiple flowers per plant from spring to fall.

Read More

August 29, 2017

27 New Impatiens for Spring Color in 2018

Gardeners love impatiens because they are one of the few plants that offer stand-out, splashy blooms for shady areas, and in some cases full sun. There's no shortage of new introductions this year to choose from for your 2018 product mix. Here are 27 new and improved varieties to consider offering to your customers.  

Read More
Candy Tops Snapdragons Series (Sakata Ornamentals)

August 3, 2017

Five Characteristics Breeders Want in Top-Performing Sp…

New spring annuals have to provide something for everyone — longevity, durability, performance, and more — if they want to meet breeders’ high standards for market-worthy plants.

Read More
Petunia 'Headliner Pink Sky" (Selecta)

August 3, 2017

Why Eccentricity is the New Black in Spring Annuals

Consumers judge plants by appearance, color impact, and ease of maintenance, which is why retailers want new spring annuals that are novel standouts.    

Read More
Petunia 'Amore Mio' (Danziger)

June 8, 2017

AmericanHort Update on Genetically Engineered Petunias

AmericanHort is actively assisting affected plant breeders, distributors, growers, and retailers as the genetically modified petunia regulatory response continues. Since the last update, there have been several changes to the list of petunias confirmed or suspected of being genetically engineered and therefore unauthorized to be imported or sold. Also, the list of recognized laboratories for petunia variety confirmation testing has expanded. Most importantly, petunia varieties on the USDA-APHIS Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS) list require an APHIS Form 2000 for importation. APHIS also began requiring that any Petunia spp. Shipments, not including regulated GE varieties, must be accompanied by a list of variety names. This resulted in some inspection delays at the USDA-APHIS plant inspection station in Atlanta over the past two weeks. In response, AmericanHort has negotiated a more flexible approach with APHIS, and new guidance has just been posted for importing Petunia plants, cuttings, or seed. The new guidance allows […]

Read More

May 25, 2017

Genetically Modified Petunia Update: Breeders Take Swif…

Now that the initial shock of genetically engineered petunias is wearing off, breeders continue testing for tainted stock and look toward the future. On the consumer side, uncertainties remain.  

Read More

May 23, 2017

USDA-APHIS Bulletin on Unauthorized Distribution of Gen…

On May 2, 2017, USDA-APHIS was informed that an orange petunia variety was potentially genetically engineered and had been imported and moved interstate without required authorization by APHIS. This led to testing of numerous petunia varieties, which confirmed this particular variety and several others are genetically engineered, and meet the regulatory definition of a regulated article under APHIS regulations. APHIS continues to work with the industry to ensure unauthorized GE petunias are not distributed in the United States.

Read More
Petunia F1 African Sunset from American Takii

May 22, 2017

Genetically Modified Petunia Update: Question and Answe…

AmericanHort’s key role interfacing with the USDA on the recall of genetically modified petunias has helped the horticulture industry rapidly address the problem. Senior Vice President Craig Regelbrugge talks about recent updates, the impact on the industry, and where it goes from here.

Read More

April 25, 2017

41 New Vegetative Petunias From California Spring Trial…

With the abundance of new introductions for the 2018 retail season, we’ve made it easier for you to sift through them by separating out the vegetative petunias from the Northern sites, which includes selections from Westhoff Flowers, Sakata Ornamentals, Danziger, Proven Winners, and Syngenta flowers.

Read More
Zinnia Solmar Series (Floranova)

March 17, 2017

Phlox, Zinnias, and More for 2018 From California Sprin…

We asked breeders to share with us pictures and information on some of the great new annuals that you'll see at California Spring Trials 2017. They didn't let you down.

Read More
Cosmos ‘Apollo’ (Floranova)

March 14, 2017

Begonias, Dahlias, and More for 2018 from California Sp…

We asked breeders to share with us pictures and information on some of the great new annuals that you'll see at California Spring Trials 2017. They didn't let you down.

Read More
Limbo GP burgundy picotee

March 7, 2017

New Petunias and Calibrachoas for 2018 from California …

We asked breeders to share with us pictures and information on some of the great new petunias and calibrachoas that you'll see at California Spring Trials 2017. They didn't let you down.

Read More
Sea Breeze Catharanthus combo

December 2, 2016

Four Mixed Container Trends To Watch

Mixed containers are still one of the best-selling SKUs at retail. Pay attention to these four trends that are making their mark on multi-liner mixes and combination containers.

Read More

September 7, 2016

Check Out The Best Annuals For Attracting Bees And Butt…

Public interest in protecting bees and other pollinators has initiated a new market for flowers that are good food plants for pollinators. Here's a list of annuals Michigan State University Extension recommends that are attractive to bees and other pollinators.

Read More

September 6, 2016

10 Colorful Spring Plants For Sales In 2017

Trends with plants come and go, but color always sells. These spring crops for 2017 offer color choices ranging from bold and vibrant hues to understated, softer tones, and they’re versatile enough to be used in baskets, containers, beds, and borders.

Read More