The purpose of this note is to raise awareness of the risk that seeds and plants may contain or consist of unauthorised genetically modified (GM) material; and help the ornamental plant sector to address this risk.
Earlier this year it was found that producers of petunias across the EU were unwittingly marketing GM plants. Although this did not pose a safety risk it is illegal to sell GM plants for which, as here, no statutory authorisation had been granted. Therefore action had to be taken to stop marketing of the affected petunia varieties. Along with one UK breeder, this incident affected importers and retailers of petunias in the UK, putting them to some inconvenience and cost.
It is not known exactly how GM plants originally entered the petunia supply chain. The inference is that some years ago an experimental GM plant line was cross-bred with conventional plants, and that through further crossing the number of affected varieties increased over time. The incident highlighted that the ornamental plant sector is not immune from the risk of adventitious GM presence, and that it should seek to manage that risk as far as is reasonably possible.
Having suitable controls in place
Companies trading in ornamental plants and seeds are legally responsible for ensuring that they do not market unauthorised GM material. Moreover, given the potential consequences to their business, it will be in their own interests to take steps to counter this possibility. As the ornamental sector is characterised by diverse production chains and associated propagation techniques, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ prescription for the controls that should be applied. However, it may be helpful to set out in general terms what importers or producers of plants and seeds can do to minimise the potential for a problem to arise.
These may include the following elements:
- Provenance of production materials – documentation detailing the source of the seed or plant material, including the breeder and country of origin, and confirmation that the material has been produced from non-GM lines
- Variety maintenance – evidence that the variety has been maintained in isolation from other lines
- Growing season controls – documentation detailing the controls in place to prevent possible cross-contamination from GM plants
- Controls during processing, storage and transport – confirming suitable measures have been taken to prevent GM cross-contamination at this stage
Various techniques may be used to test whether seed or plant material is GM but the most common method is known as PCR - polymerase chain reaction. Using PCR it is possible to test for a range of genetic elements that are commonly used in the creation of GM organisms.
Testing of seeds or plant material should:
- Be carried out on a representative sample of material
- Include appropriate positive and negative controls
- Address the potential of false-positive results (e.g. by including controls that preclude positive results due to environmental contamination)
- Be conducted to a high level of sensitivity (e.g. to detect a GM presence of at least 0.1% in seed)
- Provide a clear indication of any standards or accreditation to which the analysis conforms (e.g. ISO17025, UKAS, etc.)
- Report the actual test result and the associated confidence limit (e.g. ±95%)
If companies suspect or have confirmed that they are holding unauthorised GM seeds or plants they should report this immediately to the relevant regulatory authority.