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Illegal Petunias Pulled From Flower Trials

Posted: June 26, 2017

As horticultural producers of bedding plants are winding down the busy spring season, it came as a shock to many that some of the petunias being produced are actually illegal.
The African Sunset petunia is one of the genetically engineered varieties that the USDA is asking breeders to destroy. Photo: S. Adam, Penn State

The African Sunset petunia is one of the genetically engineered varieties that the USDA is asking breeders to destroy. Photo: S. Adam, Penn State

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has published a list of the petunias which are evidently Genetically Modified Organisms (or more accurately Genetically Engineered Organisms or GEOs), and requested that all producers destroy the plants on that list. According to Science Mag online, this began with a cultivar called African Sunset, and by June 16, 2017, has snowballed into a hit list of over 60 cultivars. All GMO’s need to be registered with USDA, and an example (African Sunset) was not. The conventional breeding that subsequently occurred using African Sunset or other GEO Petunias as pod or pollen parents resulted in more petunias that are perhaps excellent cultivars, but also carry the gene that was inserted into African Sunset being carried into the new hybrids.

The original gene inserted was from corn, and enabled the industry to develop some stunning red and orange forms. Sadly most breeders had no knowledge of this fact, and so production ensued, and now we have a long list of illegal petunias. While the experts believe that there will be no negative environmental impact from these GEO petunias, it is simply a matter of legality, which precludes their sale and distribution in the USA.

It actually began two years ago with a plant biologist in Finland, who noticed a striking orange petunia in Helsinki in a planter. Teemu Teeri collected a piece of this plant and took it to the laboratory where it was tested and confirmed that this was indeed a GEO petunia. His suspicion related to his studies thirty years before when a landmark gene-engineering project with petunia occurred. Terri informed the USDA and EU regulators that this had indeed occurred.

The progeny of the original experiment were grown out in Germany and the United Kingdom, but it was not known that this modification had been incorporated into production and breeding of new forms. On April 27, 2017 Evira, Finland’s food safety group, called for eight cultivars to be removed from the marketplace, and after further testing by the EU and the USDA, the list had grown to over 60 cultivars by June 16, 2017. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) (an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)) gave growers the options of bury, compost, autoclave, incinerate, or put the plants in the landfill. Interestingly some of these petunias have been on the market for over ten years. USDA is not planning on punishing the producers or sellers, and rightly so as who knew? Also no one checked the genetic background of the plants being used for breeding.

As a result the GEO petunias on the hit list have been withdrawn from the Penn State Flower Trials, but I still see some of them growing happily in PA gardens. No, APHIS is not coming to a homeowner’s property to confiscate their petunias—the consumer did not intend to expand GEO occupancy on the planet, and doubtlessly they were purchased because of their color and beauty. I recall that feeling while looking at the display of Petunia Trilogy Red (photo below) at the California Spring Trials.

trilogy petunias

Photo: S. Adam, Penn State

This situation reflects a greater discontent with modern breeding techniques by humanity, and it is likely to continue as a debate in the future. Turning back the clock to the year 1600, there was a debate then when people were arguing if it was godly or ungodly to cross dianthus with the hand of man. Amateur and professional plant breeding and selection is a significant reason why humans are a successful species on planet earth. Lets remember not to throw out the baby with the bath water.

Further reading on this topic

How the transgenic petunia carnage of 2017 began

USDA Updates List of Genetically Modified Petunias

Contact Information

Sinclair Adam
  • Extension Educator
Email:
Phone: 717-270-4391