John JuergensGenetically modified vines: science vs. tradition?

Well, it had to happen. Recently the news was filled with reports about worldwide hand-wringing over impending field tests of genetically modified vines in France.

Actually, this is not a new issue. Field tests of vines modified by the insertion of a silkworm gene to prevent certain bacterial diseases were quietly started by Champagne giant Moet et Chandon back in 1996 in cooperation with the French National Institute of Agricultural Research.

But when word got out in 1999 that these tests were being conducted, the manure hit the fan. Moet cancelled the tests and pulled up the vines in response to consumer outrage. However, the tests are slated to resume sometime this fall and near religious fervor-level concern is once again being raised, not only in France, but around the world.

Europeans in general seem to have an aversion to the concept of genetically modified foods, which some refer to as "Frankenfoods." Of course, we have our own passionate lobby against genetically modified foods, but I think Americans are a bit more adventuresome when it comes to taking a chance on anything that might give us a better value for our dollar, as long as there is no overt health hazard. Just take a look at all the money tossed down the drain on ineffective and sometimes even toxic so-called herbal therapies. A little gene splicing is nothing compared to the risk some of this stuff poses.

At issue here is the need to find ways to reduce or halt the spread of a variety of diseases that are devastating vineyards in different parts of the world.

In this country it is Pierce's Disease, a bacterium that causes the vine's leaves to wilt and turn brown, eventually killing the vine. The bacteria are spread by a small dragonfly-like insect with the classy name of the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter.

Although Europe does not have Pierce's Disease to contend with - at least not yet - they have other diseases that affect the quality and volume of grape production and require the application of a variety of chemical pesticides.

The genetic modification research that is being so hotly debated is aimed at making vines resistant to the worst of these diseases. That is, the focus is on protecting the vines and increasing output, not changing the fruit.

It is interesting to read the wide range of comments pro and con on this issue.

Most French wine makers view it as a foregone catastrophe. They see it as direct threat to their centuries old, delicate wine making traditions. American wine makers are mixed in their opinions about the issue, and those opposed to the tests are far less fatalistic about it.

A group of famous wine makers in Burgundy have called for a flat out ten-year moratorium on the use of genetically modified vines, but also want all field research halted. One wine shop owner summarized the French attitude with the phrase, "Over my dead body!"

One fourth-generation American wine maker expressed a more philosophical view suggesting that, "Wine making is part science and part art. When you introduce too much science into it you lose the individuality." I wonder what the corollary to that would be if too much art was introduced. That could be even more frightening!

The most conservative American opinions I found were expressed by wine academics such as a professor at the University of California at Davis, the Harvard of the wine industry: "The flower and composition of wine grapes is such a subtle thing. You can't mess with it and assume it will be the same." Not exactly what I would consider a passionate call to riot in the streets.

Some makers of high-end wines expressed concern that genetic modification might subtly change things such as the mouth feel or aromas of the wine. But I doubt anyone would be able to sort out such subtle changes from normal annual variation, which we know can be substantial.

On the other end of the spectrum we have wine makers who dismiss such concerns saying, "You're going to change one gene and it's going to vastly change the wine? I don't think so." Another wine maker suggested that the French might be more supportive of genetic research if they were threatened by the devastating effects of Pierce's Disease.

In their defense, however, many French wine makers say they are not against continued research; they just don't want the research to be put into the field until they have all the unknowns sorted out in the laboratory.

Supporting this position of caution is an incident that occurred in this country several years ago. An experimental strain of corn, which was guaranteed not to get into the general corn population, showed up in some corn taco shells and tortillas. So potentially bad things can happen when dealing with experimental agricultural practices in the field.

Of course, there are those who believe that the real concern is not about the threat of producing monster vineyards, but about the risk of negative consumer reaction, which translates into the potential for product boycotts and cash flow problems.

In some sense all of this concern seems a bit over-reactive to me because we have been living with genetically modified vines for decades. Just about ever single vine in existence in France and a large part of the rest of the wine producing world has been grafted onto root stock that has been genetically modified to resist Phylloxera, the root louse that wiped out almost the entire French wine industry back at the turn of the 19th Century and a large portion of California vineyards in the 1970s and 1980s.

Science saved the vines then and I firmly believe it will serve the industry well in this endeavor.

Only a few wineries are working on genetically modified vines because it is difficult and requires expensive know-how and equipment. In addition, it takes a long time to conduct this research because you don't get results for three to five years when vines start producing a commercially viable crop. Those companies that are doing this kind of work are trying to do it very quietly to avoid environmental vandalism. There have been instances where environmentally obsessed groups have destroyed vines at nurseries just because they were owned by biotechnology research parent companies.

Even with all the prophets of vineyard doom waving their placards in the press, genetic research is being conducted actively in the U.S., Germany, Italy, Australia, Israel, South Africa, Chile, and France.

Should we be worried? I'm not. I believe this research will be so carefully monitored that there is little risk of a catastrophic meltdown of the world wine industry.

As we have seen in the last few years, the overall quality of wine just keeps getting better and better, and there are always great values in the market. Most of this improvement has been the result of a lot of carefully conducted viticultural research. Therefore, I'm placing my bets on the genetic engineers to give us even better wine at even better prices.

September 2004

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