The award-winning African Sunset petunia turns out to be the product of genetic engineering, and doesn’t have a permit to be sold in the United States.

F.D. Richards/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

U.S. flower sellers rush to destroy illegal GE petunias

Click here to read an update to this story, which includes the tale of how the GE petunias were accidentally discovered outside a train station in Finland.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced today that U.S. flower distributors have begun to destroy countless petunia plants after federal scientists confirmed that they were genetically engineered (GE) to produce vivid orange, red, and purple blooms. The agency says the flowers pose no risk to the environment or to human health, but GE organisms need special permits to be sold in the United States.

Distributors apparently imported or bred the flowers without realizing the plants had been GE. 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, according to a statement issued by USDA. (Petunias aren’t naturally orange.) “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,” the department stated. “Several distributors have already voluntarily removed GE petunias from distribution and destroyed them.”

Testing continues, but USDA says it has already confirmed nine unwelcome varieties. They are: 

  1. African Sunset (the petunia initially identified as GE)
  2. Trilogy Mango
  3. Trilogy Deep Purple
  4. Trilogy Red
  5. Trilogy ’76 Mix-Liberty Mix
  6. Fortunia Early Orange
  7. Hells Bells Improved
  8. Petunia Salmon Ray
  9. Sweetunia Orange Flash

The agency says that “consumers who may have purchased GE petunias need take no action,” and that petunias also “have no sexually compatible wild relatives in the United States, are not plant pests and are not listed as noxious weeds.” The flowers originally came from Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, South America, and Australia.

The U.S. discovery follows similar discoveries of genetically modified petunias in Finland and the European Union, which also bar the growing and sale of GE plants without special permits. Finnish regulators banned the sale of GE orange petunias on 27 April, and the European Union has begun an investigation. Many European breeders and distributors are now tracing the GE plants so they can be withdrawn from the market and destroyed.

News of the U.S. investigation was first broken on 14 May by Greenhouse Management News. “[T]he 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,” Michelle Simakis and Karen E. Varga reported. Breeders believe the GE material entered the petunia breeding chain some time ago, they report, and then went unnoticed by breeders who use conventional methods to produce plants.

"It’s one of those things where I think [the GE 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," Steve Wiley, general manager of American Takii, a horticultural firm based Salinas, California, told the publication.

The petunias aren’t the first GE plant to show up where they aren’t supposed to. Regulators periodically discover GE corn, soybeans, and other crops in nations or places where they aren’t allowed, fueling concerns about adequate regulation. The United States is currently overhauling its rules for the regulation of biotechnology products. Draft guidelines USDA released in January propose exempting from regulation plants with DNA from a sexually compatible species and with DNA changes also possible through older chemical or radiation-based methods. A spokesperson for the Finnish food safety regulator Evira told The Telegraph that the agency suspects a gene from maize gave the petunias their unnatural hue.