Unauthorized GE petunias: USDA, industry weigh in

Unauthorized GE petunias: USDA, industry weigh in

USDA says genetically engineered petunias pose a compliance issue, not a safety concern. Breeders, growers and retailers discuss the impact on their businesses.

On May 14, Garden Center and Greenhouse Management magazines first reported that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is testing potentially genetically engineered (GE) petunias following the news released at the end of April that orange-colored petunia varieties in Europe had been found to be genetically engineered.

Since our initial report, the USDA has responded to several questions regarding a guidance document released May 11 that listed 20 implicated varieties from several breeders that were potentially genetically engineered, and issued instructions for destroying them. The USDA says testing is not complete and that “at least some of the petunias listed are genetically engineered.”

They released a bulletin May 16 with an update of the varieties that they have confirmed to be genetically engineered, which includes different varieties than the list from the May 11 document:

African Sunset
Fortunia Early Orange
Hells Bells Improved
Petunia Salmon Ray
Sweetunia Orange Flash  
Trilogy Mango
Trilogy Deep Purple
Trilogy Red
Trilogy ’76 Mix-Liberty Mix

A USDA spokesperson said that because GE petunias do not pose a risk to human health 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 methods 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 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. "It’s important to note that petunias are non-edible annuals, and there is no reason to believe that these genetically modified varieties pose any risk to the health of humans, plants or the environment. We have been working closely with USDA-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service-Biotechnology Regulatory Services (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 this 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. Westhoff has two implicated, possibly GE petunias on the original USDA list – Perfectunia Orange and Perfectunia Mandarin.  

The USDA says it is in “daily communication with importers and distributors who are in a lead role to halt the distribution” of the implicated petunias, and it is sending information to as many as 25,000 "registered stakeholders."

“They are cooperating with us and have already withdrawn GE petunias from distribution. 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,” the USDA spokesperson said by email when asked if there was a specific deadline for destroying the plants.

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 – 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.”

There is a theory about how this all began, and how the genetically engineered germplasm or organism was incorporated into so many breeding programs, but the USDA has not confirmed any details yet. Many say the source was from experiments breeding petunias with corn back in the late 1980s.

“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,” the USDA spokesperson said.

Breeders are also conducting their own tests, including Westhoff. Berg 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.

“We are working as quickly and as efficiently as possible with the entire breeding community to find a solution for this,” Berg says. “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. 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.

“This is an extremely unfortunate event that is going to disrupt a lot of growers and retailers in the next year.”

Hort Couture Plants did not have any varieties that were impacted, says Kelly Staats, business manager. But its parent company, C. Raker and Sons, has stopped receiving implicated or potentially unauthorized plants.

“C. Raker and Sons has ceased all shipments of suspect orange petunias, we are in the process of dumping all material that we have in house, canceling all future shipments, suspending all promotional activities for these items, and will be dropping these items from our 2018 program and catalog,” Staats says. “We are following the USDA directive for this process.”

As of now, some retailers aren’t worried, like Frank Janosz, vice president of live goods purchasing with English Gardens, with eight locations throughout Michigan. Janosz says the impact on his business, as well as the impact on many of the growers he buys from, has been minimal so far.

“Most of the varieties that were listed were not even in production by most of the [growers] I know,” Janosz says. “And yet, all of the them had been notified by the company they’d bought the product from that those items needed to be destroyed. As far as [the growers], very little effect, and as far as me, probably even less.”

Janosz had been hearing rumors regarding the GE petunia situation throughout the week prior to the USDA’s announcement.

“What was going on was some of the sales reps for the companies that had varieties listed were starting to hear about this issue,” he says. “They were contacting the people they sold those plants to, to let them know something could happen, just so they weren’t out in the dark. They didn’t want [customers] to read the USDA letter and say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this?’ They were trying to stay ahead of the hurricane before it hit.”

Janosz says orange petunias, the color of most of the implicated plants on the USDA list, make up a relatively small portion of his inventory. In his market, orange annual varieties are not particularly popular at this time of year – pinks, purples, whites and blues make up a larger percentage of summer sales.

“Fortunately for me, it didn’t really matter because I really don’t have any of them in inventory anyway,” Janosz says of the orange petunias. “In our marketplace, orange is not the most popular flower for summer. It’s pretty good for fall, but for summer, our customers do not plant a ton of orange of any one thing to begin with. That may be a bigger reason why it’s not had an impact in a large way.”

Although the registration process required in order for breeders to produce and distribute the affected petunia varieties could take several years, Janosz isn’t overly concerned about the potential shortage of orange ornamentals that his market may ask for.

“The number of flowers they mentioned is not a tremendous number,” he says. “There are other orange varieties out there that you can find that can be used instead of the ones that were listed. There are other orange flowers out there that can be used instead of a petunia if somebody were to really want to make an orange combination or an orange splash in their yard.”

Based on what Janosz has heard from colleagues and suppliers, many breeders are shocked and dismayed by the GE petunia findings.

“The breeders seem to be taken aback by it … a lot of breeders actually don’t want anything to do with genetic modification, partly because it’s got such a negative connotation when it comes to vegetable and herb plants,” Janosz says.

Berg is also concerned about how consumers will respond to this news.

“This is a big fear that I have, that even if and when the USDA does allow these petunias back on the market, it could cause consumers to be wary on purchasing these plants,” Berg says. “This is a chance for us to educate our consumer that these plants have been in the market for years without our knowing and have no ill effects on humans or the environment they’re planted in.”

Steve Wiley, American Takii COO and general manager, said although he could not confirm the source of the genetic engineering, he is not surprised that this material got into the hands of so many breeders, and that it likely occurred before GE plants were regulated by the government and feared by consumers.

“This is a series of unintended consequences that could have come from public work done 30 years ago,” Wiley says. “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."

He added that if indeed this all started with breeding conducted three decades ago, as many believe, the products have been on the market for two decades or more.

“We want to stress to people it’s a harmless thing, but it’s a regulated product, so we have to follow government protocols as sellers of the product,” Wiley says. “We want to reassure people that there is no potential for human harm or genetic drift into other species.”

If these plants are not dangerous to human health or the environment and there’s no potential for harm, we asked the USDA, why are they so heavily regulated?

“GE organisms that are created using genetic material from a plant pest are regulated by APHIS under 7 CFR part 340. These GE petunias fall under that category. FDA regulates for food and feed safety; APHIS regulates to protect plant health,” the USDA spokesperson said. “Our concern is to be sure that GE organisms do not pose a threat to American agriculture. This is explained on our website under Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology.”

American Takii only follows traditional, conventional breeding practices as a rule for many reasons, Wiley says, one of which is that the process of deregulation is long and expensive.

To prevent this happening in the future, Wiley says they 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.

“With disarray like this, there’s also opportunity. 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. How do we solve this problem but how do we move forward also? We’re all here to sell seed and make people happy; we want to make sure we can continue to offer colors people want.”

This is a developing story that we will continue to update as more information becomes available. Greenhouse Management magazine editor Karen E. Varga contributed to this report.