Genetically Modified Petunia Update: Question and Answer with AmericanHort’s Craig Regelbrugge

Craig Regelbrugge

Craig Regelbrugge, Senior Vice President at AmericanHort

The discovery of genetically engineered (GE) petunias in the supply chain has taken the horticulture industry by surprise. It’s times like these when trade organizations’ instrumental role in circulating accurate information and acting as an interface with governmental agencies helps the industry deal with problems quickly and decisively.


AmericanHort, along with the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), is working hard to help breeders, distributors, and commercial growers navigate through the many moving parts of withdrawing GE petunias from distribution. Greenhouse Grower reached out to Craig Regelbrugge, Senior Vice President at AmericanHort, to find out how the organization is working with affected companies and the USDA to mitigate the problem, and what the short- and long-term impacts are for the multi-million dollar petunia industry.

Greenhouse Grower: What has AmericanHort’s involvement been with the recall of genetically engineered petunias so far, and what is it doing to help alleviate the problem?

Craig Regelbrugge: AmericanHort was asked to join a small, informal working group because of our expertise and reputation in this space. Secondly, we are a one-stop shop that represents stem to stern from a supply chain standpoint. Our role, along with the ASTA, has been to serve as facilitators and share accurate information with the industry, which is critical with the regulatory interface of the USDA.

GG: How is AmericanHort working with breeders and growers to find a solution to this issue and make sure that no more GE petunias unintentionally creep into the germplasm supply going forward? Will more testing be involved?

Regelbrugge: The approach is both short term and long term. Short term, it has been about managing the regulatory response and the effect it has on the industry. The early work has been to understand where the USDA has flexibility and where it does not. Our goal is to minimize the impact on the industry.

Currently, the industry is trying to get our arms around the complete picture. USDA is doing its own lab testing to confirm whether the implicated varieties were genetically engineered using methodologies that fall within the scope of its regulations, and the affected companies are testing implicated varieties, as well as analyzing other petunia varieties not on the list that may have been crossbred with them.

One component of response has been to come to an agreement with the USDA on what is expected. The USDA has released two guidance documents so far. The first is a general version that talks about what to do with implicated plants. The USDA updates this guidance based on laboratory confirmations of affected or suspected varieties. The second guidance document, released on May 18, covers more specific testing guidelines for the affected companies. It is important that everyone see eye-to-eye on the protocols and resources for testing to avoid money and time wasted on unnecessary lab work.

GG: Is AmericanHort doing anything to reach out to companies importing petunias into the U.S. from Europe and other countries, or to reach breeders and growers who are not part of a trade organization?

Regelbrugge: The short answer is absolutely. The long answer is we are trying to do what makes the most sense for getting the word out. When USDA initially asked the associations to reach out to the industry, we suggested the best approach was to let the breeders and distributors work through their supply chain contacts because that was the most efficient way to get the information where it needed to go the fastest.

We are also working to draw a larger circle of outreach. USDA is reaching out to petunia importers of record, and affected companies are also coordinating with the USDA so they can address any gaps with known importers of petunias. The biggest concern right now is to make sure that everyone that has been importing petunias understands that the implicated varieties are not authorized for importation. The affected companies have also been incredibly responsive, which has resulted in a smoother process and a less Draconian impact than we might have seen otherwise.

With the offshore piece and vegetative side of this issue, it’s interesting to note that AmericanHort and Society of American Florists have been working with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) to develop and pilot a new offshore certification program for vegetative cuttings. That work is ongoing, and the USDA will publish the details through its stakeholder notices as early as this summer.

The premise of this work is that offshore production locations are embracing a systems approach that manages and mitigates pest risk at the origin, rather trying to inspect for and eliminate pests and disease through inspections at the ports. We think that this type of upfront work will help move plants more rapidly through the importation process when they come in to the country. Experience gained in the pilot program development has helped us in the petunia response effort.

GG: What do you think the short- and long-term impacts will be on the industry?

Regelbrugge: The short-term impact is the marketplace disruption and the immediate response in the aftermath. With respect to the supply chain, we are cautiously optimistic that we can avoid any significant disruptions in 2018, but there is work to do.

We think what is important going forward is that the petunia market remains open. With the supply chain for petunias, both in seed and vegetative cuttings, there is a significant offshore element here, so keeping the market open is very important. Job No. 1 for us is to do everything we can to make sure that the smooth functioning of the market continues.

Over the longer term, this is an interesting teaching/learning moment in our industry. As time goes on, I think there will be more attention and value paid to genetics, lineage, and breeding history, and that supply chain relationships will continue to deepen.

Before this incident, we were sitting toward the back of the GMO theater because early technologies were slow, expensive, and uncertain in their results. Innovators focused mainly on larger market agronomic crops. This (petunia) issue has taken us to the front row. In my opinion, it is realistic to believe that as genetic modification technologies become simpler, faster, more applicable, and more predictable; we will see additional work on ornamentals in this area.

Down the road, if breeders value these genetics enough, the way forward may be to work in a consortium to petition the USDA for deregulation of genetically engineered petunias. However, this could be tricky since the breeding that led to this problem is 30 years old. It will all depend on if the companies think going through that process is worth it. And, there is the question of consumer acceptance.

GG: Do the disposal recommendations also apply to retailers?

Regelbrugge: USDA has made it clear that it does not believe that there is a basis for concern with respect to environmental impact based on what they know, and that there is no impact on human health. USDA has advised that consumers who have planted these petunias do need not to do anything.

On the retail side, there is a technical and a practical answer. The technical answer is the USDA has asked the industry supply chain to voluntarily stop sale of these unauthorized genetically engineered varieties ─ period. The practical reality is the associations, in their collaboration with the affected companies, chose to focus on the production and commercial side of the supply chain because we believe it is the best way to approach the supply chain in the most rapid fashion.

In a retail setting, with how the supply chain has evolved, annuals don’t stick around for long. An enormous amount of resources could be wasted trying to find every retailer who carries these petunias. To us, the most logical way forward to implement the requested action was to put out a coordinated message through the breeders, distributors, and commercial growers.

GG: Where does the industry go from here?

There may be some who view the USDA’s move as yet another example of governmental overreach and as a burden on the industry. I am not here to defend the government; the regulatory framework in this country for biotechnology invention is far more approachable than in many other parts of the world, but there is certainly room for modernization. The unfortunate challenge now is when the USDA becomes aware that an unauthorized genetically engineered plant is moving in commerce, it really has no choice but to act. The question is not whether it should have acted. What the industry needs to ask is how can we best work together to minimize the negative impacts and move ahead.