An Engineered Future? By Bridget White

After a day spent touring the University of Florida's poinsettia trial (look for coverage of the trial in the February issue of GPN), a group of us got together for dinner. And like it always does, the conversation flowed through things like industry gossip, happenings at the chains and increasing consumption…a typical meal with six people from the industry (apologies to Claudia Barrett, one of our hosts and the wife of GPN's consulting editor Jim Barrett, who had to sit through five hours of such conversation).

We had almost solved the industry's problems when Dave Edenfield, formerly with Smith Gardens now president of Visions Group, asked about biotechnology in flowers. Everyone actually got pretty quiet; for once, our group had very little to say. We talked for a while more about things like ongoing research at University of Florida, a rumor that The Scotts Co. was developing biotech plants, and the blue rose, a product long thought impossible but achieved last year with biotechnology.

The conversation soon moved in another direction, and speculation about biotech gave way to something much more immediate. But with the coming of the new year and thoughts of the future on my mind, I'm wondering if we will see the day that biotech enters our industry. You have to wonder how a technology that now dominates world wide agriculture can be almost nonexistent in floriculture.

Worlds Apart

Five or six years ago there was a fair amount of speculation about how biotech would influence floriculture. It has taken a surprisingly long time for the first sign to appear in the form of a blue rose: a feat accomplished by inserting a foreign gene into a standard rose. Suntory Corp., breeders of Millionbells calibrachoa, now owns the blue rose, and the first crop should be available later this year when cut flowers from Australia hit the market.

On the other end of the scale, biotech has almost taken over row crops. Last year marked the 10th anniversary of biotech's introduction in that market and the one billionth acre harvested (a soybean patch in Illinois). Biotech traits are currently offered in the three of the biggest row crops in the United States — corn, soybeans and cotton. If you produce a crop such as corn, you're either talking about the biotech traits you want in your crop or how you plan to keep your crop free of biotech "pollution."

Why is there such dissimilarity? It's all agriculture, alfalfa to zinnia. You plant a seed or a cutting, give it water and nutrients, and it grows. Way too simplistic, of course, because factors such as market forces, industry objectives and consumer usage mean these two halves of the same business are destined for different courses.

Could It Work?

Adding biotech traits to varieties is very expensive. Each breeder wanting to do so must purchase a "gene gun" to insert the trait and then license the specific biotech trait to be inserted. For example, the most extensive biotech trait in corn is Roundup Ready. Developed by Monsanto, the Roundup Ready gene enables growers to spray Roundup directly over their crop, killing all weeds with no harm to the corn. Individual corn breeders license the Roundup Ready trait from Monsanto and insert the trait into their specific varieties.

The process would work the same way with floriculture crops, assuming there was a Roundup Ready trait for that crop, which there isn't.

Everything from how quickly our industry introduces new varieties to the fragmentation among breeders implies biotech will not soon come to floriculture. Instead of planting hundreds of acres of the same crop, we plant as little as a few flats. The number of species our industry deals with is far greater than row or vegetable crops. And believe it or not, row crops make our profit margin look gigantic.

Sure, Dave Clark's research at the University of Florida is amazing. He is inserting drought-resistance traits into petunias, achieving plants that barely wilt after weeks-long droughts. But are you ready to pay substantially more, as much as double, so gardeners can water once a month? This might be our biggest stumbling block.

Check It Out

I hinted last month about a new column we are starting. Featured on the last page of each issue, "Ask Us" will give you the opportunity to have disease, insect and growth regulation questions answered by the best in the industry. Ann Chase, Jim Bethke, Jim Barrett and Joyce Latimer will rotate monthly, tackling a different discipline each month. See page 82 for the first column by Ann Chase and to learn how to submit questions.

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