There appears to be no end to the onslaught.
BY BART ZIEGLER
May 27, 2007
Petunias that survive frost. Impatiens that shrug off drought.
Disease-free geraniums. They sound like dream plants for gardeners.
But they also present a major challenge for the gardening industry.
That's because these "miracle" flowers - now in the works, thanks to a
new alliance between a German plant company and a California startup -
are the product of genetic engineering. Ornamental plants that have
had their DNA juggled could spark the same backlash created by
genetically altered food crops such as corn and soybeans.
The broader debate over genetic engineering touches on science,
politics and deeply held beliefs. And the last thing the horticulture
business needs is accusations that it is selling "Frankenflowers."
Sales by the U.S. garden industry have been flat to down the past few
years, despite all those new houses with unlandscaped lawns. Some in
the business blame young homeowners' lack of time, but others believe
some would-be gardeners give up too soon, when their first attempts
fail. Genetically engineered plants that are easier to grow could keep
those novices in the game.
I was lucky when I began gardening eight years ago because, blessed by
good soil and adequate rain, I had few plant failures. But genetically
enhanced plants could make a difference - provided they are shown to
have no detrimental side-effects - for friends who have been turned
off to gardening for life by one bad season.
So far about the only genetically engineered ornamental plants on the
market are carnations that have been injected with a petunia gene to
give them purplish-blue hues not seen in nature. But these are sold
only as cut flowers. Several obstacles have made it tough to
genetically enhance flowers and shrubs. Chief among them is the high
cost of the technology and the requirement to license the patents
behind the genetic techniques. Since the ornamental-plant business is
a fraction of the size of the agricultural one, these costs can't be
spread over enough seeds or young plants to make the proposition
One promising startup that tried to create new flower varieties with
genetic engineering, NovaFlora of Philadelphia, gave up a few years
ago. "The biggest roadblock we ran into was the barriers to
intellectual property," says Michael Dobres, NovaFlora's chief
executive. Now, it has turned to a technique called mutagenesis, in
which it scrambles the genes that naturally occur in plants to create
The new German-U.S. alliance hopes to overcome the roadblocks by
linking Selecta Klemm, which sells starter plants to wholesale growers
in the U.S. and elsewhere, with Mendel Biotechnology of California,
which holds the rights to key genetic-engineering techniques. Mendel
shares patents and technology with Monsanto, a giant in the world of
genetically engineered crop plants.
Selecta began preliminary work with Mendel more than four years ago,
says Christian Klemm, Selecta's chief financial officer. On Jan. 1,
the two companies launched Ornamental Bioscience, which Klemm runs
from its Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters.
He says the joint venture has three advantages over earlier ones. One
is its access to key patents and technology through Mendel and
Monsanto. The second is its work with Florigene, the Australian
company that developed the purplish-blue carnation. Third is its
strategy: It aims to produce clear, functional benefits for commercial
growers and consumers, such as tougher, more reliable plants, not just
novel flower colors or shapes.
Ornamental Bioscience aims to switch on existing genes that are
dormant - such as those that could make plants more resistant to cold
or drought - rather than deploy the more controversial techniques used
in genetically engineered food crops. The company has turned on
certain genes in petunias and poinsettias and is growing the plants in
greenhouses to determine if the transformed plants are, in fact, more
tolerant of frost, cold air or drought. "We have no reason to believe
it doesn't work," Klemm says.
Of course, gardeners, farmers and scientists have been manipulating
the genes in plants for hundreds of years by crossbreeding varieties
for desirable traits, usually by transferring pollen from one plant to
another. In some ways, what Ornamental Bioscience is doing is a
continuation of that trend.
Still, Ornamental Bioscience faces a long road to get such plants on
the market. It must obtain regulatory approvals and then persuade
plant growers and consumers that the new varieties are worth 25
percent to 50 percent more, Klemm estimates. These hurdles have turned
off other big players in the garden world, including Ball Seed, the
largest U.S. company in the business. "There are just better ways we
could spend our research dollars," says a Ball spokeswoman.
Then there are the groups opposed to genetic engineering. It seems to
me their concerns may be misplaced here. Since most people don't eat
flowers, food safety isn't an issue. And since ornamental plants are
raised in much smaller quantities than corn or soybeans, often inside
greenhouses, it's much less likely that they would "escape" into the
wild. But there's one legitimate worry: These new plants could crowd
out naturally occurring varieties. We need to make sure the plant
industry doesn't come up with another kudzu - that "miracle" plant
that now smothers much of the South.
"My gut instinct would be that, assuming there isn't some highly
public campaign (against genetic manipulation), most people would not
be terribly upset about the idea of a frost-resistant petunia," says
Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food
and Biotechnology, which calls itself a neutral source of information
on genetically modified plants. And that could turn gardening into a
more sure-fire pursuit.