Debates about the labelling of genetically modified food are driven less by health concerns than by distrust of the agriculture industry's business practices

Are Genetically Engineered Petunias in Your Garden?

By —— Bio and Archives--June 8, 2017

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It started in Finland. In mid-April, the Finnish food authority Evira announced it had identified genetically-modified (GE) petunias in Finland. The award-winning orange ‘African Sunset’ as well as eight other petunia varieties that had already been planted were found to be genetically modified. Since GM plants are banned from cultivation in the European Union, Evira said in a statement that it was withdrawing all plants and seed stocks.

It took over a couple of weeks for the international implications to sink in. ‘African Sunset’ and the ‘Trilogy Series’ of petunias had been widely distributed across the gardening world. ‘African Sunset’ itself had received recognition as a much-valued All-America Selection on 9 November 2013:

It is the first time in AAS history, that the organization is recognizing both national and regional performance. Petunia ‘African Sunset’ did well in a majority of US regions.

Consequently, for the past three years, these petunias have been widely available. In Canada, for example, reputable seed firms such as Stokes Seeds and Veseys list them. In Europe, both seed and plants have been available from firms in Germany and the Netherlands.

This proved, though, to be the calm before the storm. On 2 May, the Germany-based horticultural firm Selecta Klemm informed USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) that it had moved a GE orange petunia into the United States. The USDA quickly confirmed that this petunia was being distributed without authorization, along with eight others—possibly more. All commercial seed and plant stocks were ordered destroyed. “We were surprised by the finding of genetically modified petunias, stemming from research in Europe,” Bethany Shively, director of communications for the American Seed Trade Association, told Garden Center News.

Other sources, scientific, commercial and popular media, took up the tale. “U.S. flower sellers rush to destroy illegal GE petunias,” headlined an account by David Malakoff of ScienceInsider. “Petunias are one of Britain’s most popular plants and the planting season begins in April. GE flowering plants are banned in the EU,” noted Horticulture Week from the UK. Also from the UK, the tabloid Daily Mail stirred the compost heap, claiming ‘Frankenflowers.’

Where does this leave the home gardener with planters and beds bulging with these genetically-modified blooms? Despite predictable claims from UK newspapers such as “GE petunias could harm wildlife in Britain’s gardens (The Daily Telegraph) or “Shoppers Led Up the Garden Path Over GE Flowers” (The Daily Mail), even Evira, which started the scare in Finland, says, “The orange petunias do not cause any risk to people or the environment.” The USDA says the flowers pose no risk to the environment or to human health. So, if you already have these vibrant blooms in flowers beds or planters, presumably you and yours are safe. But it is doubtful if ‘African Sunset’ and its ilk will be approved soon.

Where did these petunias come from and who developed them are recurring demands (The Daily Telegraph claimed their origins are “unknown.”) Yet in its announcement of recognition for ‘African Sunset,’ the All-American Selections noted that:

The new petunia bred by Japanese breeder Takii & Co wowed the judges . . .

Indeed, the website of American Takii notes as one of “our team,” Paul Readly, Flower Research Manager, is responsible for flower research activities at the Salinas station. Working with Takii seeds for eight years following graduation, according to the website, “Paul was involved in the development of Petunia ‘African Sunset’ and the Trilogy Petunia Series, as well as numerous other ornamental seed crops.”

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Perhaps then, the urge to lay the blame on German and Dutch horticultural firms is misplaced. But back in the late 1980s, experiments were made in Germany to genetically engineer petunias with corn. It is not clear if this was the source of the genes for an orange petunia—a colour which does not naturally exist in the popular bedding plant.

“We don’t know if this is the agent material in these particular GE petunias. Genetic testing is underway,” the USDA spokesperson told Garden Center News.

A recent editorial in the respected journal Nature noted: “Debates about the labelling of genetically modified food are driven less by health concerns than by distrust of the agriculture industry’s business practices.” Whoever was behind this incident has done nothing to increase acceptance of genetic engineering and possibly much to discourage it.

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Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.

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