Counting the cost of GM petunia 'storm in a teacup'

Nurseries explore compensation as experts warn against tighter breeding legislation.

Pegasus Orange Morn: one of the varieties linked to GM
Pegasus Orange Morn: one of the varieties linked to GM

After Government agencies identified GM orange petunias across Europe in May and told growers to make sure they are not sold, nurseries are wondering whether they will receive compensation for the thousands of plants they have had to throw away.

Woodlark Nurseries managing director Colin Edwards says he had to throw away a "couple of thousand" Potunia Plus Papaya orange petunias sourced from breeder Dummen Orange because of the GM scare. He has grown them for several years for sale to garden centre chains but they are now not allowed to be sold after GM was detected in several orange petunia varieties last month.

Edwards says he hopes a compensation agreement will be reached with the propagator and it is a "shame" that the plants will be wasted. "It's not as if we're growing them on spec," he adds. "The space could have been used for something else. I'll be disappointed if we can't come to some agreement about compensation." He points out that the labels as well as the plants all have to be binned, causing even more losses.

Having grown the Dummen Orange varieties for five or six years, Edwards believes the issue around GM petunias is "a storm in a teacup" that he would have preferred to have broken at the end of the season rather than near the start.

No threat to environment

A spokesperson for Defra says: "Although the petunias are not considered to pose a risk to human health or the environment, because there is no EU authorisation for GM petunias they cannot legally be sold. The task for the UK authorities is therefore to ensure that no marketing of GM petunias is taking place."

Plants for Europe owner Graham Spencer says compensation is "a difficult one" but would have to come from the company that supplied the plants to the grower, adding: "There is never going to be any official (Government) compensation. But it's fair to say people further down the chain were unaware of the GM nature of the product so they might have a grievance with the supplier. But I suspect the supplier already has an answer."

Spencer says he has seen GM-linked varieties such as Pegasus Orange Morn for sale in garden centres since Defra's advice to remove suspected plants. The HTA and media message either has not reached retailers or they are ignoring it, he says, and growers who got their plants out early and sold through can safely ignore the problem.

He adds that Defra messages have been confusing because they said GM petunias form no risk to the environment or public health so consumers are safe to have them in their gardens, but growers and retailers should withdraw and discard them. Thousands of the suspected 500,000 orange petunias grown in the EU may have already been sold when Defra issued its warning about them on 11 May.

Spencer says he suspects national bodies such as Defra are less likely to crack down on or even fine anyone selling suspect petunias because the department has bigger priorities with Brexit on the horizon. He is though concerned that the transgene in the GM petunias may have been used in other breeding programmes for plant hybrids other than orange petunias and adds that growers may be checking records to see whether this is the case.

Very sensible advice

Wayne Eady of Volmary-owned Delamore, breeder of Petunia Pegasus Orange, Pegasus Orange Morn, and Pegasus Table Orange, says Defra's advice has been "very sensible". He has recalled any young plants sent to wholesale customers not in the public domain and has offered "satisfactory compensation" for them. But he stresses that tabloid media reaction about "Frankenflowers" has been "blown up out of all proportion". Orange petunias are less than three per cent of his petunia production but the numbers affected at his Wisbech nursery are "enough to be of concern".

Defra says risks are "negligible" and has given advice that plants already in gardens should be allowed to die over the winter. Eady says he has received no direct contact from Defra but is following the department's advice.

"It is now up to the trade looking forward to make sure petunias are GM-free," he says, adding that the trade should "err on the side of caution" and pointing out it is right that the public should know what is in the flowers they buy.

However, while not being supportive of GM he adds that the story opens up a debate about the traceability of pollen used in breeding, but "it is these guys (the breeders) who push the boundaries of plant discoveries. You could find a situation where breeders are so bound by legislation that boundaries are no longer pushed. I'm not advocating GM but there needs to be caution about legislation for breeders because it could stifle their abilities. A few orange petunias is not going to make any odds but it might with new plants in medicine and pharmaceuticals."

Petunias - Plants with confirmed GM links and others listed as suspect

Previously notified as suspect GM varieties but now confirmed:

- Bonnie Red 14
- Bonnie Orange
- Electric Orange
- Sanguna Salmon
- Potunia Plus Papaya
- African Sunset
- Bonnie Orange 15

Source: HTA

Suspect GM varieties:

- Sentuna 2.0 GShell Orange Nr. 11-45
- Sentuna 2.0 Rose Coral 315
- Charms Flame 2-140
- Cascadias Red Lips
- Capella Red
- Orange Yellow Centre 749 (07336)
- Bingo Coral Orange
- Crazytunia Citrus Twist
- Crazytunia Kabloom
- GS Hellorange
- Happy Classic Yellow Orange Stripes 0-82
- My Love Orange
- Orange Star
- Orange Yellow Zone 225
- Potunia Plus Red, Art. 40302
- Stars Yellow Orange
- Happy Classic Orange Morn 0-65.

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