Monday, February 26, 2007

Invasive species & Frankenplants: Biotech and the Garden

Genetically engineered garden plants are on the cutting edge of invasive species issues and of the billion dollar horticulture industry. “Frankenplants” to some; explosion of garden possibilities to others, this line of research is a logical extension of the work done for centuries by plant hybridizers on a long time line basis. The search for a blue rose, or, in the words of Bart Ziegler of the Wall Street Journal (Feb., 24th, 2007), “Petunias that survive frost.”, bring new worlds of gardening possibilities to the discussion of invasive species.

Demonstrating the environmental safety of a species, newly introduced from outside its native habitat or from a laboratory, is the silent gorilla, the 900 pound kudzu vine in the room. How we find the resources to support the presently lengthy research needed to investigate the invasive potential remains to be shown. The article presents the following statement for consideration: “Since most people don’t eat flowers, food safety is not an issue. And since ornamental plants are raised in much smaller quantities than corn or soy beans, often inside greenhouses, it’s much less likely that they would “escape” into the wild. But there is one legitimate worry: these new plants could crowd out naturally occurring varieties.”

So here we have the wicked problem (Invasive Notes) which is partly defined by stakeholders’ solutions. If the solution is that we want to have only native species, than the very idea of genetically engineered plants is an anathema to stakeholders who define the problem as the introduction of non native species. Because the gardening industry is late to the table, it has not clearly defined its solution and the resulting conversation will be loud and bitter.

Now this is not to say that there is not a middle ground. For instance, genetically engineered burning bush cultivars, which would be truly sterile, might be a viable project to undertake. For the native only stakeholder, this would still be horrid by definition, but at least a middle ground would be available to the garden industry.

The question of cultivars and sterility continues to haunt on going conversations. I believed that the Lythrum (voluntarily discontinued by Behnke Nurseries in the 90’s; see posting) which we sold in the 1980’s and early 90’s was sterile. We sold Bradford pears thinking that they were sterile. This tree is now the Prince George’s County tree officially and unofficially. There are reports that there may be sterile forms of barberry and burning bush. Researchers find the seedlings and are told that those must come from unscrupulous sources. Because the variables which help determine invasiveness are not well understood, the end users find themselves in a quandary as to exactly how much research needs be done before a new plant can be released.

It is important for natural area land managers and preservationists to understand that “new” sells. We can define “new” in many creative ways, but a driving reality of the industry is to supply the demand for new plants which can provide better form, color, or reliability to the land owners, who are more and more, not directly aware of the needs of the environment.. Rather, the buyers want gardens which enhance the value or quality of their life in the near term; that is, right now.

The horticulture industry potentially will find itself engaged in its own version of the organic food controversy, and may have to label products and use marketing dollars to explain its offerings. Finding solutions to landscape challenges with which all parties can agree will in the end be the only way to define and work on invasive species problems.

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