The Coastal Gardener: Is genetic engineering coming to your garden?

A blue rose. A camellia that blooms year round. A hibiscus that never needs fertilizer. Lawns that are never attacked by insects. Oranges that smell like bananas and bananas that smell like oranges. Genetic modification, or GM, says it may all be possible.

The promise of new and better garden plants is exciting, but not without a few thorny issues. The knowledge of a plant's genetic footprint and especially how to manipulate that footprint may show scientists how to make double flowers, fragrant ones, more colorful ones. Disease or insect resistance could be added to a plant. Genetic engineering could prevent a plant form from setting seed, therefore producing more flowers.

Tempted by incredible plant possibilities, many people nonetheless fear that we may be lifting the lid on Pandora's box, and what might spill out may never be able to be put back in.

There are numerous concerns to consider. One is the question of biodiversity. Without the diversity offered by the enormous array of plants that have naturally evolved over millennia, the new superplants, grown in a worldwide monoculture, might be left dangerously susceptible to an as yet unknown pest or disease.

Then there's the fear that genes may escape from their genetically engineered hosts and infiltrate the DNA of other plants, especially wild plants. What that could lead to is almost anyone's guess, but the most severe scenarios involve a collapse of our natural ecology and a subsequent doomsday situation.

One dream of the agricultural world was a Roundup-resistant crop that would greatly simplify the task of weeding. Spray everything; the crop isn't fazed, but all else in the field dies. You can imagine the gardening potential in such a development. Agriculturally, of course, it's already been done and Roundup resistant varieties are now the standard for many crops Some estimates state that 70% of all the food consumed in the U.S. contains at least some genetically modified ingredients. More than 80% of our field corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and sugar beets are genetically modified, and the number is growing quickly.

The corporations involved in genetic engineering, such as Monsanto and Bayer, have assured regulators and the public that the risk of genes escaping their genetically engineered hosts and infiltrating the DNA of other plants is minimal. Not so!

Big news was made public last week in North Dakota. The scientific and environmental community has been abuzz in recent days over the discovery of genetically engineered strains of the canola plant flourishing as roadside weeds throughout the state. Scientists believe this to be one of the first instances of a genetically modified plant establishing itself in the wild. But, in even more startling news, some of the wild plants had interbred, transferring their herbicide resistance from one plant to another. That's exactly what the skeptics of genetic engineering have been worried about.

How much of a problem this might be is subject to debate.

Would a turfgrass, with genes manipulated to resist insects, breed with wild grasses, transferring its insect immunity to our native plant communities? Would an engineered "seedless" poppy infiltrate our wild plants and create a population of California poppy "mules", never to re-seed again?

I don't know the answers to these questions, nor do some of the worlds leading experts. But I do know that in North Dakota 80% of the wild roadside canola sampled from 3,000 miles of roadway now contain genes that have been genetically manipulated.

In the meantime, I'll take oranges that smell like oranges, and I'll take my roses red.

RON VANDERHOFF is the nursery manager at Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar.

Ask Ron

Question: What's eating my basil? Every summer I seem to get little holes and chew marks on my basil leaves, but I never see any bugs.


Huntington Beach

Answer: Worms are a possibility, but much more likely is a very small little pest called a flea beetle. Flea beetles aren't related to fleas at all, but they're about the same size and color. They even jump like fleas, although not as high and are nearly impossible to see anyway. During warm months flea beetles go after the leaves of basil and leave small round or slightly irregular holes as evidence.

If the issue isn't too bad and you can tolerate a few holes in the leaves I probably wouldn't do anything. But if the issue is out of hand, you could apply an insecticidal soap early in the morning or during the evening, when the flea beetles are most active.

ASK RON your toughest gardening questions, and the expert nursery staff at Roger's Gardens will come up with an answer. Please include your name, phone number and city, and limit queries to 30 words or fewer. E-mail, or write to Plant Talk at Roger's Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.

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