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Tuesday, August 22, 2017 Vol. 81 No. 4

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Cover Story
Breeding, Bees and the Misnomers
| Jennifer Duffield White
>> Published Date: 3/26/2014
Everyone loves a good cause to rally around, but this spring watch for emotions to drive some of the hot topics. You may want to check your facts and take a more calculated approach to answering customer questions. The hot topics this spring: neonicotinoids, GMOs and the designation of hybrid, heirloom or graft.

The problem: They’re complicated. There’s more than one story. And it’s possible that consumers are angrier at the system than the issue itself when it comes right down to it.

It’s pretty unlikely you’d find a genetically engineered plant in the garden center. Yet, it seems we’re quick to assure customers, “This is GMO free,” as though the place down the road is teeming with them.

First, though, let’s set the record straight. Everyone uses the term GMO (genetically modified organism). This is inaccurate. Genetic modification refers to any sort of genetic modification—traditional plant breeding as well as biotech methods. Anytime you create a hybrid, select for various traits, that’s genetic modification, by the books. Genetic engineering (GE), or transgenics, however, means using biotechnology to manipulate an organism’s genome. When people say “GMO,” they usually mean GE.

A few major points to consider for our industry:

1. Most GE crops are in the field, not the greenhouse. And most of those are commodity crops. In fact, there are no GE tomatoes on the market in North America or Europe. (Though, fact: the Flavr Savr tomato was the first commercial GE crop in the U.S., introduced in 1994, but it didn’t have a long run.) According to the GMO Compass database, GE peppers have undergone field trials for virus resistance and delayed maturity, but are, to date, only rumored to be on the market in China. While GE strawberries and cucumbers have been tested in research, the database says that a commercial use of either is unlikely right now. The most popular GE crops are soybeans, corn, cotton and canola.

2. It’s not corn with an octopus gene. Right now, most commercial GE crops fall into the following categories: 1) tolerant to glyphosate (Roundup) or 2) production of insecticidal proteins derived from Bacillus thuringiensis, a microbial insecticide, which occurs naturally in the soil and is also approved for use in organic production.

GE crops typically contain bacteria or virus genes from tissue culture, not the genes of other organisms; though, it does occur.

The question of whether or not to require GE labeling has become more of a pro-GE, or anti-GE (GMO) battle, and has, perhaps, been the thing to shape public opinion more than anything else. In the U.S., products can voluntarily label and they usually label in the “does not contain GMOs” sense. They can also get certified as non-GE (again, they call it non-GMO); and if they’re USDA certified organic, it means they follow USDA organic rules, which do not allow for the use of GE products. The label debate has riled up consumers around the globe, and in North America, we’re seeing growers who don’t even have an option of growing a GE tomato getting non-GMO certified. They’re doing it because their customers aren’t informed enough to know it’s a moot point right now. Plus, it may help sales.

Heirlooms, hybrids and grafting
Again, definitions may bring clarity to the situation. Here’s what your customers should know:

Heirlooms: What we typically call an open-pollinated variety that’s at least 40 to 50 years old. (The timeframe is somewhat debated.) Open pollinated means that the plant produces seed that will generate a similar plant. Heirlooms have made their resurgence in the market thanks, in part, to their flavor. The downside is that some varieties tend to be more susceptible to pests and diseases and have less vigorous production.

Hybrid: Think Gregor Mendel. Parent lines are crossed with each other (not GE) and they create a new hybrid, which can’t replicate itself by seed. If they even produce viable seed, the next generation will be different than the parent plant. Plant breeders develop hybrids to improve upon traits: disease and pest resistance, root systems, harvests. However, hybrids can also occur in the wild.

Grafts: Take the top of one plant and join it to the root system of another plant (again, not GE) and you get a graft. As the tissues repair themselves, the two plants fuse. In short, the graft is the best of the heirloom and the hybrid, combined.

Plug Connection, Vista, California, has found a booming business in supplying grafted vegetables, ranging from a large collection of heirloom tomatoes to melons, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants. They explain that the grafts “use food and water more efficiently for healthier, more beautiful and more productive plants.”


Neonicotinoids are a newer class of pesticides developed in the ’90s and registered through the EPA’s Reduced Risk Pesticide program, which is designed for products that pose less risk to human health and the

When 50,000 bumblebees died in Oregon last year due to a misapplication of a neonicotinoid on flowering trees (a real no-no), it made national headlines. They’ve also been subjected to controversy over their role in overall pollinator health worldwide. It’s clear that several things—habitat, food sources, pests and disease, bee management practices, and, yes, perhaps chemical substances—influence pollinator health. How much and to what extent is hotly debated, with the public perception of neonicotinoids plummeting amidst the ruckus.

Karen Reardon, vice president of public affairs for the industry group RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment), recommends that, “When communicating with consumers on the topic, it is important to listen, stay positive and seek to educate consumers using common language they can easily understand rather than technical jargon.”

Following all label directions is crucial to safe application, for both growers and consumers. You might say, for example, “As a retail garden center, we recognize our role in the conversation about pesticide use and pollinator health, including sharing information about how we choose the right pesticide product and use it correctly.”

The horticulture industry has been stressing the importance of following label instructions. As well, there’s a strong movement to support a diverse habitat for pollinators, which has been linked to their health. That’s where the garden center customer can help out by providing a wide range of blooming, bee-friendly plants and making sure that their pest control measures are safe for pollinators.

RISE offers more information at www.pestfacts.org and www.debugthemyths.com.

As you face these hot topics this spring, remember that people like to feel as though they’re being heard. You don’t need to argue; but you might want to make sure you and your staff know how to calmly discuss the facts and how to offer in-store solutions that allow the customer to walk out feeling good about your garden center and their purchases. GP

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