In mid-May of this year, flower nurseries throughout Europe and the United States destroyed uncounted thousands of healthy flowering plants, in compliance with government orders.
This might shock gardeners, but it could the right move.
This story began thirty years ago at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, when genetic engineers inserted a maize gene into petunias, leading to the development of a petunia in a color that petunias do not produce in nature: orange.
These studies did not result in the introduction of unusual new petunias, however, because government regulations in Europe and the United States require extensive analysis of the possible risks of GE organisms on human health and the environment. The orange petunia’s market potential was not great enough to support the additional expense of such studies, so the novel hybrids were not introduced, and the lessons learned were just added to genetic engineering’s growing library.
In 1995, other plant scientists reported that this genetically engineered (GE) orange color and its variations could be passed on to hybrid petunias through conventional sexual propagation.
Although this information was announced without fanfare, plant breeders used the orange petunia cultivar, during a period of several years to produce and introduce a variety of petunias with shades of orange. These new hybrids were treated like any new plants and not reviewed for safety or submitted for regulatory approval either in Europe or the United States.
In 2015, a plant biologist who had studied plant pigments at the University of Helsinki noticed orange petunias at a train station. He remembered the original genetic engineering experiments, tested a sample of the plants, and reported that they contained foreign DNA. In brief, they were GE organisms that had not been approved by government regulators. They were illegal flowers!
The word got out. In April of this year, Finland’s food safety authority, EVIRA, identified eight illegal petunia varieties and called for their removal from the market.
May 25th of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) identified nine varieties of GE petunias with orange, red or purple blossoms, and told growers and sellers to withdraw these plants from distribution and to dispose of existing plant by burning, sterilizing in an autoclave, burying them deeply, or composting. Seeds of these plants are to be disposed of by these methods, or by grinding. APHIS has identified eighteen potentially GE petunias that could be added to the disposal list.
APHIS advises: “Consumers who may have purchased GE petunias need take no action, as the petunias are not considered to pose a risk to human health or the environment.” Petunias are annual plants and will not last beyond the current season.
What is the significance of this regulatory action? APHIS has not found that GE petunias are threats to human health or the environment (as plant pests or noxious weeds might be designated) but wants them destroyed because they are unauthorized. They are unauthorized because the developers have not provided sufficient evidence to prove their safety, and petitioned for unregulated status. They have not done so in that past because they may have known that the plants contain foreign DNA, and probably won’t do so in the future because of the time and cost involved in formal testing.
The practical consequences of this regulation could be that GE improvements in ornamental plants, such as blossoms with novel colors, or greater size or abundance will not be available to gardeners specifically because of the cost of regulatory approval. We won’t see orange petunias or clear red irises or blue roses or any other cultivars that have eluded plant breeders.
We may be comforted that the genetic engineers will focus their efforts on organisms with large market potentials, and regulators will continue to do their work. Some scientific achievements, like creating the orange petunia, provide only interesting distractions, while others could generate unseen and unintended dangers to our health and the environment.
With tradeoffs like that, our gardens can do fine without orange petunias.