Investigating petunia genetics

Departments - The Growing Edge

The industry works to move forward after the discovery of genetically engineered petunias.

An orange petunia prompted the investigation of GE varieties, but more petunias, some in colors other than orange, have been added to the USDA’s list of implicated plants.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared as two breaking news stories and a feature on Greenhouse Management magazine’s website May 14, May 17 and June 2.

Following the news that orange-colored petunia varieties in Europe had been found to be genetically engineered (GE), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched an investigation into other potentially affected varieties imported, distributed and grown in the U.S. without appropriate authorization.

Petunia breeders have been in contact with the USDA, which circulated a document dated May 11, 2017, listing some of the potentially affected implicated varieties and instructions for how to destroy the seed and plants.

According to the document, “USDA is currently conducting genetic tests on implicated varieties for which we have obtained samples. These tests will confirm whether these petunias are genetically engineered. As we obtain results from the genetic tests, we will provide updated lists of confirmed GE petunia varieties.”

The most recent update before this magazine went to press was on June 20:

  • African Sunset
  • Amore Mio
  • BigDeal Freaky Fuchsia
  • BigDeal Salmon Shimmer
  • Capella Red
  • Cascadias Simply Red
  • ColorBlitz Bright Red, also known as Glow Bright Red and Viva Bright Red
  • ColorBlitz Fire, also known as Glow Fire and Viva Fire
  • ColorBlitz Pink Morn, also known as Glow Pink Morn and Viva Pink Morn
  • Confetti Garden Twist
  • Crazytunia Cherry Cheesecake
  • Crazytunia Citrus Twist
  • Crazytunia Fire Cracker, also known as KaBloom!
  • Crazytunia Maniac Pink 
  • Crazytunia Sparky Improved
  • Crazytunia Star Jubilee
  • Crazytunia Swiss Dancer
  • Fortunia Early Orange
  • Hells Bells Improved
  • Hells Bells Orange
  • Hells Fruit Punch
  • Hells Glow
  • Littletunia Red Fire
  • Perfectunia Cherry Pop
  • Perfectunia Coral Blast
  • Peppy Cerise
  • Peppy Red 2017
  • Potunia Dark Red
  • Potunia Plus Neon 2017
  • Potunia Plus Papaya
  • Potunia Plus Red

To view USDA's full updated list, visit

It all started when Evira, the Finnish Food Safety Authority, released a statement on April 27, 2017, regarding the discovery of genetically engineered orange petunias. The color of one particular petunia — American Takii's African Sunset — captured their attention, and since then, more orange petunias and those in colors other than orange have been added to the list of plants that possibly contain genetically engineered plant material.

“On May 2, 2017, APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] was informed by Selecta Klemm GmbH & Co. that one of its petunia varieties — an orange petunia — was potentially genetically engineered and had been imported and moved interstate without required authorization by APHIS,” according to the May 16 statement from the USDA. “This led to testing by USDA of numerous petunia varieties, which confirmed this particular variety and several others are indeed GE and meet our regulatory definition of a regulated article under APHIS regulations.”

A USDA spokesperson said because GE petunias do not pose a risk to humans or the environment, the government agency is not asking consumers or retailers to destroy the petunias. They have asked breeders, growers and retailers to “voluntarily withdraw GE plants from distribution” and sent instructions for proper destruction to breeders, growers and distributors. The plants have been in the market for years, and it’s a compliance issue, not a safety concern, the spokesman said.

“We are asking that the GE petunias be destroyed at the earliest opportunity, and importers and distributors have been working as quickly as possible to accomplish this,” a USDA spokesperson said by email when asked if there was a specific deadline for destroying the plants.

Breeder response

The implicated plants were not properly registered with the USDA as GE plants because no one seemed to know that they contained or were bred with GE plant material.

“We were surprised by the finding of genetically modified petunias, stemming from research in Europe,” says Bethany Shively, director of communications for the American Seed Trade Association. “… We have been working closely with USDA APHIS-BRS to facilitate industry coordination and accurate information-sharing. Seed and plant companies are also conducting their own independent tests, and pulling varieties in question off the market.”

Chris Berg of Westhoff echoed the sentiment that the industry was taken aback by this news.

“It is something our industry has never dealt with before and came as a complete shock to the breeder community, but I’m happy to see how everyone has been working together to find a common solution that will be helpful to us all,” Berg says.

Since the news broke at the end of April in Europe, petunia breeders have conducted their own tests to determine which plants are affected after it was discovered it was not just orange petunias that may have been bred with a genetically engineered plant.

“We were completely shocked by the findings,” says Mike Huggett, national sales manager for American Takii. “We sent out the recall through our broker network and instructed the growers to stop sales [on African Sunset], and following that, we conducted some other trials internally and confirmed Trilogy Red and Deep Purple had foreign DNA in them, so we initiated a recall on those as well.”

American Takii only breeds using conventional means, Huggett says.

“Takii’s reaction was just to reclaim as much as we could because as far as the company is concerned, we don’t do any genetically modified plant material, we don’t practice in it, we don’t want to,” he says. “I’m not as much worried about the flowers as I am the perception about the vegetables. That’s when consumers get worried. The petunia loss hurts, but in the bigger scheme of things, I think it’s the perception of what the company is doing. You don’t want to be associated with a GMO.”

The silver linings for American Takii are that the GE plant is not harmful to consumers, and its recently released Evening Scentsation petunia tested negative for the GE material, says Steve Wiley, COO and general manager.

“It’s an ever-expanding list,” Wiley said of the GE petunias implicated by the USDA. “It’s one of those things where I think [the genetically engineered plant] sprang up during an age of innocence and perpetuated itself because no one even knew to look for it or fathomed that it was in the germplasm chain.”

Huggett credits the USDA and the American Seed Trade Association for their “quick work in helping us navigate through this.”

“You can’t plan for this because it wasn’t our intention,” Huggett says. “We have to start picking up the pieces.”

The USDA emphasizes that the GE plants pose no harm to humans, animals or the environment.

Genetic testing underway

When asked if the foreign genetic material stems from a documented 1980s experiment at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, a USDA 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.”

Breeders are conducting their own tests, and Berg of Westhoff says they are not limiting their tests to petunias.

“We have to first start by testing everything. All plants in our current assortment as well as all the plants in our breeding house. The Finnish test was looking specifically at orange lines of petunias, but we can’t say for absolute certainty that this gene hasn’t been incorporated into our other varieties,” Berg says. “And since we have no idea when and how it entered our gene pool, we need to screen all of our plants we’re breeding with.”

Westhoff is concerned about how this will impact plant supplies next year.

“Because GE plants are regulated by the USDA, we expect there will be several varieties from many breeders that won’t be available on the market next year,” Berg says. “But the USDA has been very cooperative so far, and I feel they’ll help our industry get these plants back in the hands of consumers in the long term.”

Each section of the supply chain has been affected differently by the discovery of GE petunias, says Craig Regelbrugge, AmericanHort senior vice president.

“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 everybody is working through the short-term response. The conversations will soon turn more in earnest to the medium- and longer-term considerations.”

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.”

Retail impact

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.

“If there’s only a limited supply, that’s the best way to help the flow of supply and demand, 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 says. The registration process required in order for breeders to produce and distribute the affected petunia varieties could take several years.

Behe notes that she is not advocating doubling or tripling prices, but says it is a good option for retailers 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, a USDA spokesperson says.

Moving forward, the industry will have to monitor consumer acceptance of GE petunias, 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 cause a backlash, and they could affect change, Behe says. But because petunias are not edible, she doesn’t think many consumers will push back.

To prevent this from happening in the future, Wiley of American Takii says the company will examine their testing procedures when bringing in new germplasm and test all of their other commercial lines. But he sees opportunity in the chaos.

“There may be some [genetically engineered] red or blue varieties that will be pulled from the market, and we may have other colored varieties we can substitute,” he says. “The pot is going to be stirred based on the gap that this creates.”

This is a developing story that we will continue to report on as more information becomes available. Michelle Simakis is editor and Conner Howard is assistant editor of sister publication Garden Center magazine.