Biotech Flowers: Are They Coming?

June 15, 2006 - 10:03

Over the past few years,
we have heard people
raving about the fantastic
research developments
in the world of plant biotechnology.
Proponents of biotechnology
(including myself) have dreamed of
markets filled with biotech flowers
that are produced with far less
chemical and human input, have
leaves that stay green longer, make
larger and longer-lasting flowers,
and have better fragrance.

Although several companies
have “dabbled” in biotechnology
ventures, to date the number of
genetically engineered flowering
crops on the market can be counted
on one hand. At face value,
this makes biotech flowers seem
like a flash in the pan that may
never come to fruition, but that is
really not the case.

Biotechnology still has the ability
to provide our industry with
new products, but the way we
look at things now is much different
than it was several years ago.
My 10 years working with biotech
has taught me that and a lot more.

Why Go Biotech?

Ultimately, any new product, no
matter how it is developed, must
have consumer appeal. Although it
may be worthwhile for a genetic
engineer to produce plants that are,
for example, easier to grow with less
chemical input, the reality is that
consumers already expect to choose
from an array of beautiful plants
with showy flowers in a range of
colors, and they expect those plants
to be free of insects and pathogens.

Ease of production and reduced
chemical input are grower benefits.
So what consumer trait would be
important enough to justify the effort
and expense of genetic engineering?
Anything with the “wow” factor —
whether that is through a unique
look or a perceived consumer value.
Because most of the biotechnologies
developed in floriculture to date
have not captured the consumer’s
attention, few have been deemed
financially feasible. Remember, the
only way to pay for any additional
cost, such as genetic engineering, is
through additional sales.

The hard part about bioengineering
is that the value question has to
be answered up front, before all of
the expensive high-tech work is
done. Without a clear understanding
of the product concept by everyone
involved, from the lab all the way
through the marketing chain to the
consumer, any group developing a
biotech crop is facing an uphill battle.

Challenges Galore

Anyone who visited the
California Pack Trials knows the
amount of genetic variability in the
marketplace is at an all-time high,
and it keeps growing as breeders
attempt to meet consumer demand
for new plants with novel characteristics.
The lifespan on floriculture
crops is getting increasingly
shorter, making the use of biotech
more difficult.

Biotech crops have to be
approved by the EPA before being
released into the market. The
amount of up-front research, development,
testing and analysis necessary
to obtain that approval
increases the time to take a crop to
market. More often than not, by the
time a gene is engineered into a
commercial variety and that variety
is ready to enter the marketplace,
some company has made an
improvement, and the variety is no
longer of interest.

The only way to solve this problem
is to slow down the speed with
which new varieties are introduced,
but this solution seems unlikely. We
are left with the realization that if a
biotech variety cannot be brought
to market in a timeframe similar
to one produced by conventional
breeding, it is definitely at a
disadvantage and may well not
move past the idea stage.

What Are The Possibilities?

Although the future of biotechnology
in floriculture crops may
not seem any clearer today than it
was a decade ago, I am convinced
that scientific breakthroughs in
this area have added some intrinsic
value to the industry. No, scientists
have not put very many
genetically engineered crops on
the market; however, a number of
tools have become available to
breeders as a result of breakthroughs
related to biotechnology.

Perhaps the biggest recent
advance in biotechnology has centered
on decoding the sequence of
DNA in many commercially
important plants. Since 2001,
entire genomes for many important
agronomic plants have been
sequenced, and by the end of this
decade, we should have the
sequence of important floriculture
crops, which will certainly
make breeding an even more
precise process.

Many have argued that
biotechnology is the most
important advancement ever
made in agriculture. It certainly
has transformed the way most
row crops are produced, but
floriculture is a very different
market. Challenges unique to
this market — things like limited
market potential and abbreviated
crop lifespan — mean
that while biotech certainly has
a place, it will probably not revolutionize
our industry the way
it has agriculture.

Researchers know exponentially
more about genetic engineering
than we ever thought we
would, and we believe that
biotechnology still has an important
place in this industry. Where
we end up will depend on developing
new traits that are important
enough to wait for.

About The Author

Dave Clark is associate professor in
the Environmental Horticulture
Department at University of Florida,
Gainesville, Fla. He can be reached
at geranium@ufl.edu.

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