Weeks after Greenhouse Management and Garden Center magazines first reported that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released information regarding potentially genetically engineered (GE) petunias, the horticulture industry has worked with the department to confirm 18 total affected varieties so far.
A spokesman for USDA-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service-Biotechnology Regulatory Services (USDA-APHIS-BRS) says “the exact genetic identification has not been confirmed,” and USDA is continuing to gather information about the affected petunias. “…we are advising organizations to test for the presence of Cauliflower mosaic virus 35 S RNA promoter (35S P) and Nopaline synthase promoter/neomycin phosphotransferase II junction (PNOS/NPTII junction), both of which are sourced from plant pests and subject to our regulations,” he says.
When asked if the foreign genetic material stems from a documented 1980s experiment that occurred at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, the spokesperson responded: “We’re aware of a gene engineered into petunia from corn in the 1980s. We don’t know if this is the genetic material in these particular GE petunias. Genetic testing is underway.”
Companies within the horticulture industry are testing their own genetics, and if people suspect a variety has been affected, they are expected to notify USDA, says Craig Regelbrugge, AmericanHort senior vice president.
“Some of our early work with USDA was to arrive at a process for determining which labs would have their test recognized, and what would the protocols be around lab testing,” he says. “Because folks want to know that the results that they’re paying to have testing – they want to know that the lab results are going to stand up against scrutiny.”
Each section of the petunia supply chain has been affected differently by the discovery of GE petunias, Regelbrugge says.
“It’s obvious that there’s been some impact throughout the supply chain, and particularly in the breeder-distributor-grower realm,” Regelbrugge says. “The situation unfolded late enough in the season that it mitigated the impact significantly, compared to what it could have been. But certainly, there has been negative impact, and I think everybody is working through the short-term response. The conversations will soon turn more in earnest to the medium- and longer-term considerations.”
In some cases, commercial companies or a consortium of companies will need to decide how to move forward; some might cover losses to other companies further down the supply chain, Regelbrugge says.
“This has been a very, very unique situation in that there’s not any evidence that anybody knowingly engaged in distributing an unauthorized genetically engineered variety or varieties,” he says. “So, it’s been a good faith effort to respond proactively. And obviously there’s been some product that would have moved through the supply chain to be sold and hasn’t been, so there’s loss associated with that.”
As inventory shrinks, it makes economic sense to consider raising the price of petunias, says Dr. Bridget K. Behe, professor of horticultural marketing at Michigan State University. “From the consumer’s standpoint, we’re like, ‘Wait, what, whoa,’” she says. “But if there’s only a limited supply, that’s the best way to help the flow of supply and demand, is to increase the price, because only the people who see the value in that, who have to have their petunias, are going to be willing to pay that premium price.”
Behe notes that she is not advocating doubling or tripling prices, but says it is a good option to increase the margin on a product that will likely be in short supply. “If you could sell it and make 10, 20, 50 cents more per item, why wouldn’t you?” she asks.
Despite rumors, there is a small chance that breeders would request to fast-track the approval process for GE petunias because they would likely not have enough information to do so, the USDA spokesperson says. “In our petition process, the developer of a GE organism provides a variety of detailed scientific data, partly acquired through regulated field tests, to support their contention that the GE organism does not present a risk to plant health. Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone other than the developer of a GE petunia would petition APHIS for deregulation, since it is the developer who has the information to support the petition.”
Four more varieties have been added to the list since our first follow-up report May 17: Sanguna Salmon; Whispers Orange, also known as Dekko Orange; Supertunia Rose Blast Charm, also known as Mini Rose Blast; and Supertunia Raspberry Blast, also known as Raspberry Blast and Hoobini Pink.
USDA-APHIS-BRS is regularly updating information regarding GE petunia varieties on a page on its site, which was last updated June 1.
The following is a list of varieties confirmed by USDA to possess genetic sequences from plant pests:
Cascadias Red Lips
Cascadias Simply Red
Fortunia Early Orange
Hells Bells Improved
Littletunia Red Fire
Salmon Ray, also known as Pegasus Orange Morn
Sweetunia Orange Flash
Trilogy Deep Purple
Triology ’76 Mix—Liberty Mix
Whispers Orange, also known as Dekko Orange
Supertunia Rose Blast Charm, also known as Mini Rose Blast
Supertunia Raspberry Blast, also known as Raspberry Blast and Hoobini Pink
The site also lists potential GE varieties, information about how they can be destroyed and more.
USDA’s investigation follows the discovery of genetically engineered orange petunias by Evira, the Finnish Food Safety Authority. Evira released a statement on April 27, noting that orange petunias had been produced through genetic engineering, which is not authorized in the European Union.
Moving forward, the industry will have to monitor consumer acceptance, Regelbrugge says. “Not everybody is accepting, but there are plenty of genetically modified items in the food system these days,” he says. “So, the pragmatists might say, ‘Yeah, using a corn gene to create a different flower color – if people like the flower color, what’s the harm?’ But I don’t know that that decision has been made by anyone yet.”
As has been the case with opponents of neonicotinoids, a vocal segment of people could create a backlash, and they could affect change, Behe says. But because petunias are not edible, she doesn’t think many consumers will push back on GE petunias.
Greenhouse Management magazine editor and Garden Center magazine editor-in-chief Karen E. Varga contributed to this report.