The Genetically Modified Grape storm in a desert wine glass..

It has been quite interesting to read some of the local articles and blog entries re the permission granted to the University of Stellenbosch’s planting of 1Ha (2.5 acres) of genetically modified grapes (GMG). On both Tim James and Cathy Van Zyl (MW) weighted in on the subject.

A bunch of folk seem be very worried that the Cape’s pristine (those few Ha not hit by the leaf-roll virus) vineyards are going to be infected by the GMG vines, to be planted under strict control conditions, as part of Stellenbosch University’s research process.

I have wondered whether it is wise to stick my neck out here and risk a lot of abuse, but then the scientist part of my being felt just too strongly about this emotional issue. So here goes, at the risk of a lot of flack…

I am fully interested and in support of the research done by the Uni of Stellenbosch.

What are some of the benefits we could hope for from GMG research at Uni of Stellenbosch?

  • The capacity to make the vines resistant to the likes of the dreaded leaf-roll virus, which still causes massive damage to vineyards from the Cape to California. This reduces the economic and sustainable capacity to farm with vineyards, while producing quality grapes
  • The capacity to achieve phenolic ripeness (I.e gain the great flavours that modern consumers demand) at lower levels of sugar, and thus lower natural alcohol levels vs the very synthetic and rough process of removing alcohol otherwise
  • Increased resistance to fungal diseases. This will allow us to farm organically without the terrible environmental impact of copper and sulphur (allowed as anti-fungals in terms of organic practice, but toxins to the soil and workers)
  • Increased resistance to drought as global warming threatens vineyards across the globe and pressure on water supplies for human consumption rockets
  • If we do not perform this level of research at local industry level, the industry may end up at the wrong side of some international private companies that may end up controlling the kind of plant material required to compete one day

Why am I not stressed by the GMG test vineyard?

  • Grapes are hugely mutable plants to start off with. Recent studies in Italy showed more than 2 million genetic variants in the Pinot Noir grape’s DNA!. Many clones developed completely by accident due to cross pollination over the ages.
  • In modern commercial vineyards, vines are not propagated by seeds, but by cuttings and/or cuttings grafted to specific rootstocks.
  • The cuttings come from a ‘mother block’ and are all of a uniform ‘clone’ of a specific cultivar, with specifically interesting attributes (yield, flavour profiles, early or late ripening etc).
  • The rootstocks are selected for their own specific genetic properties – eg resistant to drought, early or late ripening, vigorous or non-vigorous, capacity to resist certain diseases such as phylloxera or nematodes. Etc etc
  • Sometimes cuttings are crossed to form a new type of vine – e.g. Pinot Noir crossed with Hermitage (or Cinsaut as we know it today) resulted in South Africa’s Pinotage grape.
  • So, man has played and formed the genetic make up of vines and thus grapes for a long time. Grapes are very easy to mess with genetically and thus man made most of it, with the means possible. This resulted in the capacity to come back from the complete destruction of the national vineyards by phylloxera 130 years ago!

Given that vineyards are not grown from seeds, what could the possible risk be of the Cape’s vineyards mutating due to wind pollination? I suspect a woman may be at greater risk being impregnated by wind pollination!

Research is a critical part of progress. We live in a very competitive world where science is central to progress. South Africa has lost a lot of our top wine scientists due to poor levels of local research funding.

It is critical that the research is done properly, to ensure no risks to human or other life ahead of commercial release. Obviously we need to make sure the end result is safe and good for all.

Please lets not let urban legends get in the way of what must be done to remain competitive in the future!