A Sad Day For Wine. A Sad Day for Science

  • Published on August 17th, 2010

As a grape grower and as a scientist who has spent years studying grape diseases,  I was saddened to read that an experimental planting of biotech grapes was ripped out of the ground yesterday by anti-GMO activists.  It was a government-funded site in the quaint town of Colmar, in far Eastern France  (I’ve been to Colmar, it’s a beautiful little town).

What is ironic is that these vines represented about the least scary GMO crop imaginable.  They were engineered to be resistant to a disease called Fan Leaf Virus that is spread by nematodes that live in the soil.  Back before people understood this disease it was unintentionally spread to many grape-growing areas.  Once a given vineyard is contaminated with the nematodes and virus, grapes will only survive for a few years on that site before declining and dying.  Some of the best wine production areas around the world are seriously compromised this way, and there has been no lasting cure.


What was being tested in Colmar was a “rootstock.”  All grapes are cuttings of the desired variety (Gewurtztraminer, Cabernet, Chardonnay…) grafted on to a root that is resistant to various pests.  The Colmar roots would have also been resistant to the virus.  The top of the vine (all that is above ground) would be exactly like all the neighboring vineyards.  In theory the grapes wouldn’t die in a few years (that is what the researchers were hoping to demonstrate).

A Rational View

In a rational world, this technology could be a welcome way to restore productivity in some of the finest wine growing sites in the world, but we don’t seem to be living in a rational world.  No one has described a realistic scenario through which these vines could ever present a hazard to people or the environment.  In this system there would have been no GM pollen, and no GM seeds.  The program had nothing to do with the big GM companies.  When you read what various anti-GMO groups claimed about these grapes, it is clear that they never took the time to understand the biology of this system.

This Is Bigger Than Wine

In the grand scheme of things, less good wine isn’t a disaster, but this same irrationality is hindering efforts to provide things like virus resistant Cassava to poor farmers in Africa or virus resistant Papayas to people in Thailand.   The Internet is rife with misinformation and myths about GMOs, and these views are widely held by an audience which filters out any contrary information.

Fear is easier to spread than knowledge.  It’s a sad day.

You are welcome to comment here or to write me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)


  • A Sad Day for Science
    Discussion of the value of GMO should revolve around what the effect will be WHEN genes go feral and not IF, and weather the consequences are understood and acceptable for the immediate value that could be provided. I am an uneducated lay person. I ain’t got no PhD in biotechnology or genetics but I am smart enough to know that in order to prevent escape to the environment protocols will be required. Protocols are dependant on people. Rest assured someone WILL screw up. Protocols will not be understood; they will be poorly communicated, ineffectual, thought out without full understanding. As a trained scientist you should understand this, but you seem quite overconfident. Your defenses of the winegrape project and GMO in general reveal your bias, minimizing that at some point genes will escape. There are consequences that are unknowable at this time and only experience will uncover them. Don’t be so confident that your knowledge and training will solve the problems of the world without creating unforeseen problems. Technology should be viewed not just as advancement over ignorance, but as compromise as well. We need to value what we will give up as well as what we will gain before we proceed. You personally gain by proceeding, as this is food on your table. Understand that. I am a tree hugger that can embrace a GMO tree, but the gain to the rest of us may be overstate and is not the same as your gain. There is a lot of irrationality that goes around outside of the science community and a good deal of rationalization inside.

    • Dan,
      This is not about my unique knowledge. The points that I am making about this particular case are really just very basic biology that almost anyone could understand if they were willing to take the time.

      You talk about genes that “escape into the environment.” All plant genes whether GMO or natural can “escape.” Its what is normally called pollination and without it the natural world would not work. If you have children, your genes are “escaping.” Don’t let the emotive words throw you off here.

      GMO plants are not different in this regard (they can make pollen, unlikely in this case, but possible). Then the question is what gene might move. The gene in question in this case actually comes from the virus so it is already widely present in the infected grapes. This is nothing new even to these vineyards.

      The point here is not so much that a little more great wine will save the world. The point is that if activists will destroy this, then what about something that really matters – not just to rich people but to the world’s poor?

    • Dear Dan,

      I know this particular project quite well, since I’m working right in front of this lab.

      You’re saying that “genes will escape”. I think scientists have been studying for years and years interspecific crosses, and gene transfer between organisms. Of course, there’s a risk, but it has to be accurately assessed, and each GMO crop should be investigated separately. I mean that this particular GMO crop showed no evident risk for many reasons (not only the ones that Steve wrote), especially because of how the field trial was designed and built.

      Risk must be assessed, I don’t think we’re against that fact. But I agree with Steve: it’s easier to scare people than to spread knowledge. What I mean is that scientists who will be at last able to prove that no risks exst will never be heard. Medias prefer to spread negative informations about GMOs.

      I’m definitely not convinced by GMOs, and the more I know about them (I’m a PhD student working on that topic), the less I know about my opinions. The only thing is that I am shocked by how people can destroy their work, which took years and years… A government-funded lab that makes no money.

      I also thought it was a very sad day for science, when discovered this…

      Thanks for this article.

      • Noemie,
        Thanks for contributing to this stream as someone who works in the field. I’m sure you will form sound opinions about GMOs. What concerns me is how easy it is to spread disinformation. For instance, if I posted something saying that a grower in Burgundy was going to try planting some Italian cultivars and this risked “contamination” of the local varieties, I bet I could get people to worry about it. Of course in reality it would be no different from Chardonnay planted next to Pinot Noir, but who would understand that?

  • Clark,
    I started blogging just over a year ago specifically on “Sustainability” sites with the intention of engaging an audience unlikely to get the perspective of someone from the technology side. I’m sorry it seems arrogant to you, but I’ve actually gotten a lot of very positive feedback which is all that keeps me taking the time.
    Yes, we have virus-free rootstocks, but if the nematode, Xiphenema index, is present in a soil it will transmit fanleaf virus and the rootstock will be infected. Even if you fumigate the soil and/or keep it out of grapes for 10 years, new vines on that site will become infected again. Perhaps you know Richard Nagaoka, “the grape doctor.” He could confirm this.

    My suspicion is that this technology will never be commercialized. We once floated the idea of planting a vineyard on a contaminated site in Napa with investment from hundreds of scientists and other sympathetic parties, each of whom would have subscription rights to some of the wine. That would remove the marketing risk which would otherwise keep any winery out of this. I suspect that this wouldn’t work because others who wouldn’t even take the time to discuss this as you have would vandalize it.

    Again, that is no major tragedy, but the same sort of forces are at work to deny not just GMO technology but many others to poor people around the world. There is an excellent book on this topic by Robert Paarlberg of Wellsley/Harvard called “Starved for Science.” He is a highly independent voice with no company support and a background in Political Science and Economics. Its worth reading

  • Peter,
    If you look at demographic trends (population from 6-9 billion by 2050, higher standard of living in India and China…) we do have a problem when it comes to food. As for a grape disease just being part of nature do you say the same thing for polio and small pox? This grape disease isn’t that important in the broad scheme of things, but human kind has advanced by solving problems, not accepting them By the way, what possible risk can you imagine in this case that you are calling “insane?” You say you understand the technology, so exactly how could there be a problem with it?

    You are right – the move to American rootstocks was far more radical but it saved the European grape industry.

  • I”m with Steve on this one. GMOs are too often seen as an unspeakable horror by those who do not understand the technology, especially in Europe.

    The wine industry as we know it would not exist today were it not saved from phylloxera by grafting on resistant American rootstock. Only an understanding of the underlying mechanism of resistance and experimentation with American varieties saved the day. Perhaps the answer is to incubate these rootstocks with nematodes for millions of years and allow natural selection to find the ones that co-evolve resistance.

    Whether you are informed about the underlying science or not, there’s a difference between voicing your discontent (on the internet and otherwise) and going out and destroying property.

    • The problem with GMO’s historically is that they don’t respect private property by invading the public space uncontrollably. When pollen spreads throughout the ecology, it crooses property lines and alters the commons irreparably. The burden is on the implementer to guarantee this doesn’t occur. While the arguments here are stronger than usual, they are still based on the assumption that we have a perfect knowledge of how DNA is transferred. Before we decide to fool Mother Nature, we need a damned good reason. This application doesn’t strike me as all that compelling

      On the other hand, maybe we should allow such apparently benign experiments to go forth so that we can learn the hard way what unintended consequences may ensue. This might be just the place to stick our neck out in order to learn what may ensue. A small disaster now might be preferable to a big one later.

  • So, if consumers have a choice, then why does it matter if GMOs are released and made commercially available? Their choice of not buying GMO crops would put farmers who grow GMO crops out of business, solving the problem. Sounds to me like someone just wants more regulations to protect the public from using their head and making educated choices.

  • Blake,
    Please tell that to all of the children who drink atrazine contaminated water in the midwest that round-up is bad. Whatever people’s opinions of glyphosate and Monsanto, the conversion to no-till using round up ready crops has reduced the use of dangerous, environmentally persistent herbicides. I agree that herbicides should be used with caution, and maybe some farmers are over-reliant on them, but GMOs are not bad. The Papaya Ringspot Resistant Papaya is an example. It saved the Papaya industry throughout the world – and saved millions of pounds of insecticides being used to control the vectors!

    If GMOs could be developed by Universities – a public institution – then how does corporations profit? The grapevines mentioned above were developed by the USDA-ARS, and would be released for everyone to use…not just one company. That argument of “It is a technology that serves corporate profit, not the public good,” is a bit shortsighted and based on one of several GMO case studies.

    Please explain how traditional breeding methods are “a more reliable and time-tested solution.” I know countless breeders who spent careers stacking genes only to have the new variety’s resistance break within two years of introduction.

  • What I find missing here is humility. The writer seems to feel in a position to assess the risks involved, and takes the lack of evidence of hazard as support for a go-ahead. But it is not. The burden of proof is to demonstrate positively that there is no possible risk. It’s nearly impossible to prove a negative, but that’s what would be needed here. I can’t say that the likely absence of pollen and seeds (except from suckers if poorly tended) makes sense, and gives a bit of a comfort level, but in my view does not really constitute a sharp enough dividing line from which to rally a political departure.
    If advocates of technology would begin from a position that we don’t really know all the risks, then a conversation could open up in which comparative benefits could be assessed and weighed. In such a discussion, however, the status quo has a big edge. Fan leaf is at least the devil we know.

    • Clark,
      If I seem to lack humility it is because I am actually in a position to asses the risks. I’m not saying I’m beyond questions, but I do know a great deal about this technology.

      You ask for “no possible risk”. There is no such option in life.

      The “status quo” is the devil that we know as you say. Fan leaf will continue to devalue some of the best potential grape sites of the world. There is almost no chance that biotechnology will be allowed to solve that problem. People like you are why that will be true.

      Have you ever grown grapes?

      • I have a PhD in fluid mechanics, and I understand technology. The problem I have with food science, is that we don’t have a problem.

        We are producing more food in the world than is required to feed the planet. Hunger and starvation in the world is a question of politics and distribution, but not science. Have you ever been to a restaurant in the US?

        So what is the ultimate point of this research. If it is so that consumers can get a bottle of DRC Burgundy at $5 a bottle and for the industry to be sustainable, GREAT! i.e. technology improves quality of life. But I don’t think it is.

        If nature is posing a serious treat to mankind and this research will help us survive, GREAT! But I don’t think it is.

        Fan leaf is part of Nature, and if Nature wants to devalue some of the best potential grape sites in the world, let it. It poses no treat to mankind and won’t lead to hunger and starvation. We are also not going to be deprived of First Growth Bordeaux, Y’quem, DRC, Harlan or Penfolds Grange. That last time I went to the supermarket it seems there is more wine than we can consume.

        I do support research and scientific exploration for the sake for science. It is when we apply it that questions should be ask.

        There are no risk-free solutions. But why put the WHOLE of mankind at risk, when mankind (except for a few grape growers) was never in trouble anyway?

        That is an INSANE risk-reward profile!

      • Sorry, Steve, I would have assumed that you knew my background as founder of R. H. Phillips Vineyard and later Vinovation, the world’s largest wine technology provider and winegrowing consulting firm (until I sold it in 2008. Yes, I have grown a few grapes.
        As such I have plenty of experience in the unintended consequences of technology. Systems thinking and prediction of consequences is not something our contemporary way of working is very good at. Consider, for example, the consequences of USDA’s recent intentional introduction of the asian ladybug to the Central US, a disaster of epic proportions.
        Your assertion that you are in a position to assess the risks is the very problem I’m talking about. A sad day for science indeed when we lord our education and experience over a lay person with legitimate concerns for unpredictable consequences. It is this cockiness that time after time gives technology a black eye. Can you see that you come off as patronizing?
        We already have methods to clean up fan leaf for these sites, so the reward is elusive in my mind. It seems the GMO approach here is simply intended to save a little money. Hard to get sad about taking a pass in this case.
        But perhaps I misunderstand your argument. My invitation is that you state your case — the risks and the rewards — and let us all in on the decision-making process, rather than to pre-empt such a conversation and ask us simply to trust your assessment due to your lofty professional status.
        So I ask again. How would you guarantee that, in broad use in agriculture, a GMO roostock would never flower and pollenate?

        • Clark,
          Good points and I’m sorry I didn’t recognize your name. I’m happy to say more about why the risk is low – I had talked about that in an earlier post. Lets say that the GMO rootstock did flower. It could only pollinate other grapes and since grapes are not grown from seed that would be pretty much the end of it. You have grown blocks of two varieties side by side and that does not lead to any problems. Vitis californica is around, but you could have rules for how close you could be to natural stands of that. Even so, fan leaf resistance would not turn V. californica into a super-weed. I can’t think of a way this could cause a problem, can you? If you move to the idea that you never do anything that could possibly have a risk, then you don’t do anything.

          • A good analysis, and I honestly can’t come up with a scenario for disaster — doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but I applaud your tone.

            Next piece of business is, given innate uncertainty about the risk, what is the benefit to be gained? Several commenters have challenged your stance on this, given that solutions are already in place. Why have you chosen this particular innovation to take a stand for?

          • Clark,

            I’ve actually taken lots of stands in this area (http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/) but this one is a bit more personal. I was in the grape pathology lab for my PhD at Davis and knew the grape virologists. I’ve spoken with the inventors of this technology and been hired by the group of grape growers who have the license to brainstorm how it could ever be commercialized. I think I just like the idea of being able to restore some high quality wine production areas to full productivity and quality (the existing nematode resistant rootstock is too vigorous).

          • Following your link, it is indeed evident that this is for you a cause célèbre. The message I receive from your site is that dumb, uneducated lay people should back off and let the smart, wise professionals do what’s best for everybody without the tedium of having to explain their logic to a bunch of environmentalist losers.

            In this case, I’m a bit confused by your justification. All rootstocks are devigorating compared to own-rooted, so these areas you speak of as “some of best wine production areas in the world” would seem overly fertile to be particularly great. And if an existing nematode-resistant rootstock such as Harmony or Dog Ridge is too vigorous, what exactly is to be gained by the GMO approach? Virus resistance would after all only increase vigor.

            I still don’t understand what’s wrong with the virus-free rootstocks we already have. Tell me again why it’s so compelling to use GMO’s in this application.

            Perhaps I fail to grasp your arguments, and I may be off base, but it seems to me that you are more interested in the cause than the merits of this specific situation. If so, this is religious fundamentalism, not science.

  • Blake,
    People have been trying hard to breed around fan leaf for decades. The only resistant rootstock is too vigorous and gives poor quality wine. If you actually look at the data, yields are increasing in GMO crops at rates higher than before them. Increased use of glyphosate offset the use of other herbicides which are not nearly as safe. Unless you believe in Communism, there is not an automatic reason that corporate profit and public good cannot coincide. What other industries do you think should be abandoned? Cars? Computers? Clothing?

  • Consumers have repeatedly shown that, if given the choice, they would choose non-genetically modified food products. Fan Leaf Virus is a serious disease, but traditional breeding techniques, although slower and more painstaking, offer a more reliable, time-tested solution to dealing with pests and diseases. Genetic modification of food crops has not improved yields, and has actually increased the amount of herbicides used in the environment. It is a technology that serves corporate profit, not the public good, and should be abandoned.

Comments are closed.