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.
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