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 Grape.co.za 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!

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5 Responses to The Genetically Modified Grape storm in a desert wine glass..

  1. Finally someone in favour of GM research. I think it is fantastic that the powers to be finally had the insight to go forward with this project. It is human nature to fear what you don’t understand. If you told South Africans 50 years ago that we are going to build a nuclear powerplant at Koeberg to generate electricity, everyone would have thought Hiroshima. But strangely no one is concerned now. It is the same regarding GM research. Yes, there are some dangers and that is why researchers nowadays make very sure that those dangers are overcome. There is nothing dangerous about this vineyard. We should be proud that South Africa is the leader in this technology. I always find it so funny that people are all up in arms about GM foods but have no problem injecting themselves with GM insulin if they have diabetes.

  2. Egmont says:

    Nuclear power and GMOs present too big risks for our nature. Humans THINK they can master these powers, but they actually don’t. Pure business interest is behind this lie. In France, we see nowadays how the nuclear plant management, which has been partly privatised, reduces the security norms, causing stress, accidents and power ruptures. In Mexico, traditional corn farms see their plants beginning to mute because of GMO pollen carried by the wind from 300 kilometers behind the mexican-american border. Promoting nuclear power and GMOs is like telling people that tobacco does’nt give lung cancer.

  3. Madeleine Love says:

    The author clearly knows little about the actual techniques and outcomes of genetic modification techniques. They are random, unpredictable, cause damage to the host DNA, and the commercial scientists don’t have the economic resources to evaluate what they have made. They may make something that grows and looks like a grape, but the safety of the plant for humans and environment will never be known, and traditional techniques will produce quicker and more desirable and reliable outcomes. As for nuclear power.. just a dead loss for humans and environment.

  4. Dana Buys says:

    The beauty about the Internet is that we may all have a view and the rights to express it!

  5. Tad Spielmann says:

    As the Good Lord tells us, all things are meant to be and whatever His plan is it’s the best thing in the world.

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