Industry figures say they would welcome a broad-based debate on genetic modification in ornamental crops, following the discovery last month of suspected cases of unauthorised petunias on sale in Finland - and this week in the UK.
Finnish food standards government agency Evira raised the alert over the issue in Finland, while the HTA alerted Defra to the potential issue in the UK. "GM petunias are highly likely to have come through to the British supply chain," says HTA horticulture head Raoul Curtis- Machin. "I suspect they are in a lot of EU countries' supply chains."
Defra has told UK sellers of suspected GM petunias to withdraw them from sale following EU advice. The department says investigations are still ongoing and will "determine how widespread they are" if and when they are confirmed. Defra emphasises: "We don't know whether they are in the UK yet. We have not had evidence they are."
Evira says one batch of petunia seeds - African Sunset - has tested positive.
African Sunset breeder Takii says the seed is undergoing independent tests in the Netherlands. Takii adds that its policy is not to deal with GM crops.
UK sellers such as Thompson & Morgan have stopped selling suspected seeds. "We're not selling any. We've withdrawn them from sale."
Takii Europe managing director Ton Kuipers says as a "precautionary action ... we have blocked all the sales and have approached all the customers from the past year to see if they still have any in stock to ask them to send them back to us". He adds that the company will follow any instructions from local and Dutch national authorities when they are made and says other companies cited by Evira are following the same actions as Takii.
GM ornamentals are banned from sale, other than for purple cut flower carnations from Suntory-owned Florigene, which breeds them for petal colour and herbicide tolerance.
Defra's position on the issue is to agree to the planting of GM crops "if a robust risk assessment indicates that it is safe for people and the environment". It advocates thorough labelling and "supports farmers having access to developments in new technology and being able to choose whether or not to adopt them".
Potential benefits from GM
Defra says: "We recognise that GM technology could deliver benefits providing it is used safely and responsibly, in particular as one of a range of tools to address the longer-term challenges of global food security, climate change and the need for more sustainable agricultural production.
However, GM has rarely been discussed in relation to ornamentals. Curtis-Machin says: "With Brexit and the whole future of agriculture and horticulture and land-based industries (being discussed), GM ornamentals should be part of the mix. There needs to be a full and frank debate.
"We'd encourage responsible experimentation to find out. There's all sorts of potential but with these things you have to make sure that there's enough scientific research done and make sure it is safe and will not have any adverse effect on the wider environment." He adds that the HTA does not have an official pro or anti position on the issue but he has not seen evidence that there are risks to the wider environment, and he believes there are potential benefits to breed better plants with greater pest and disease resistance, for instance.
Greengene International managing director Professor Geoff Dixon says: "This throws up that there needs to be a much more far-ranging debate in the country about where people think they want to go with GM plants. It should be up to the general public whether or not they want to buy them."
Start a wider debate
Plants for Europe director Graham Spencer says: "GMOs are not allowed to be sold or traded within the EU. But I think it will start a wider debate about what is acceptable and whether the law should be changed.
"Whilst I think that consumers are generally opposed to GMOs in the food chain, I wonder if the level of opposition would be the same when it comes to ornamentals, particularly with plants like petunia, which certainly won't survive from year to year."
WD Smith director and British Protected Ornamentals Association technical committee chairman Michael Smith says he is opposed to the use of GM. The industry has "no reason to be involved in GM," he maintains. "There's enough breeding going on without that".
Evira believes the original material was imported from Germany and the Netherlands, and that the new orange colour has been created through genetic manipulation using genes from GM maize or corn.
"Every effort is being made to trace the plants so they can be withdrawn from sale," says the HTA. "We do not yet know how widespread they are in the UK supply chain. The production of genetically modified petunias is not authorised in the EU and any plants and seed will be destroyed. The UK authorities will decide what action to take. The likelihood is that they are in the supply chain but they have not been pinpointed to specific companies or breeders. But the fact they are in the supply chain shows the likelihood that they are here."