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How Would You Stop a Vineyard Apocalypse?

If grapes were being wiped out, genetically modified vines could be the solution—if people are willing to open their minds

Posted: Aug 13, 2013 10:10am ET

By Mitch Frank

Imagine a bacterial scourge that was silently spreading from vineyard to vineyard, striking down grapevines in their prime, bankrupting wineries and threatening to turn even the most basic of wines into a rare luxury. Take a deep breath. It's fiction, for now. But it's a horrible reality for farmers who produce another of our favorite beverages: orange juice. Since 2005, bacteria has been spreading through orange groves from Florida to California, inflicting a disease called citrus greening. Infected trees produce small, sour oranges.

Since the illness was found in a Florida grove eight years ago, growers have tried to slow it by chopping down and burning hundreds of thousands of infected trees. They have stepped up their pesticide spraying, targeting the Asian citrus psyllid insect that carries the bacteria, and they have looked for naturally resistant orange breeds with no luck. The most promising solution, according to a recent New York Times article, is a tree developed by scientists who inserted a gene from spinach into orange DNA.

While the trees remain in quarantine, facing years of testing, the farmers worry that even if they thrive, no one will drink their juice because it comes from a genetically modified organism (GMO), an organism whose genes have been altered, in this case by inserting genetic material from another plant.

I prefer coffee in the morning, but the debate made me wonder: Would I drink wine from a genetically modified vine?

GMOs are controversial, and wine has not been spared. In 2010, activists tore apart an experimental vineyard in Alsace, destroying 70 vines modified to resist fanleaf virus, a widespread affliction in Burgundy and Champagne. Mendocino voters outlawed the planting of GMOs in their county in 2004 (sparing the world both GMO Pinot Noir and GMO marijuana), and this past fall California voters narrowly rejected a proposition requiring special labels for foods containing GMOs. Whole Foods recently announced it would stop stocking most foods with GMO ingredients and require labels on the remainder by 2018.

Part of the public mistrust of GMOs stems from the company that pioneered them: Monsanto. In the 1980s, its scientists developed modified strains of soybeans and other staple crops that were resistant to a certain pesticide. Farmers could spray, kill weeds and spare their beans. Monsanto profited doubly because it also made the pesticide, Roundup. Monsanto also patented its GMOs, giving the company exclusive ownership of seeds, which raised all sorts of thorny questions.

There is broad scientific consensus that food on the market derived from GMO plants poses no greater health or allergy risk than conventional food. Consumers eat a few GMO foods now, including some papayas and zucchini, but most GMO plants are fed to livestock. Opponents argue that it's too soon to understand the long-term effects of eating GMO foods, and they point out that agra-science has been wrong before (see DDT). They also worry that the plants will destroy biodiversity, outcompeting natural breeds.

GMO technology certainly begs for caution—it will take time to fully study the long-term impact. It could have many applications, and while some are worthwhile, others sound dubious. Unfortunately, like the mob in Alsace, some opponents don't want to have the discussion or allow research. They generally speak loudest. Polls show that the public knows little about GMOs, and they're being bombarded with plenty of opinions and few facts.

The root of the word agriculture is the Latin agricultura, or cultivating a field. We think of our fruits and vegetables as gifts from nature, ignoring that they are also the results of human sweat. We don't pick oranges from wild trees or crush grapes from wild vines. We cultivate them. For better or worse, our work has produced corn and oranges and grapes extremely different from what nature would have produced on its own. Would GMO vines be vastly different than the vines we have produced by spending centuries selecting our favorite vines, cutting off branches and propagating them? Man has fundamentally shaped the evolution of the Vitis vinifera we treasure today.

Shouting down and banning a technique that could prove better than existing methods before we truly know the risks is wrong. To prevent mildew, otherwise green-minded grapegrowers spray their fields with permitted copper sulfate. If a vine could protect itself from pathogens, eliminating the need to spray soil with heavy metals, would it be worth it?

What if a GMO vine saved wine from extinction? Last year, scientists crafted a hybrid gene from human and insect DNA that appears to help grapevines fight off Pierce's disease, which killed many California vineyards in the mid-1990s. But few are in a rush to plant vines with the gene. "If consumers have the choice, they're not gonna buy Frankenwine," Adam Tolmach of Ojai Vineyard told Wine Spectator. Tolmach lost his 5.5-acre Syrah vineyard to Pierce's disease. He has a choice because other options have surfaced—control of the insects that spread Pierce's, and vines bred to resist the disease. But as Florida's orange growers are learning, sometimes there may be no other options.

Wine did face a crisis as dire as citrus greening once. In the 1860s, phylloxera began devastating French vineyards. It didn't take long for scientists to suggest grafting vines onto American vine rootstocks, which are immune to the pest. But farmers and the public resisted. Grafting, they believed, would destroy the character of French wines. Parliament banned the import of American vines, and vignerons instead pumped heavy chemicals into the ground for years, watching millions of acres die before admitting defeat. Now, most of the world's vineyards are grafted on American rootstocks.

If a modern-day phylloxera emerged, and nothing else worked, shouldn't GMOs be an option?

Daniel Braun
Princeville, HI, USA —  August 13, 2013 5:05pm ET
The problem with New World (and now some Old World too) grape growing is a monoculture system which will very likely face a future crisis. GMO is not a sustainable solution as eventually the GMO monoculture will become victim to a different disease, just like GMO corn is now facing "super weeds" and bugs resistant to pesticide. What we should really be doing is experiments such as the ones Randall Graham is undertaking that better diversify the genetic material of vines. I for one, will not drink GMO orange juice(any store bought OJ actually) or buy GMO wine. In fact, most of my savvy consumers are seeking smaller production organic and bio-dynamic wines. Our only really future for human beings will be to bring back real farms with real diversity. If you have 300 acres of a monoculture you will eventually have a problem on your hands.
Hilliard Bruce Vineyards
Lompoc —  August 14, 2013 2:41pm ET
The safety issue has been studied and discussed by scientists around the world, and the conclusion is that there is no evidence that GMOs are inherently unsafe. The most prominent scientific bodies in the world - among them, the US National Academy of Science, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the French Directorate Gen. of the European Union, French Academy of Sciences, French Academy of Medicine, Royal Society UK, British Medical Association, Union of German Academies of Science and Humanities. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), etc. etc. - have publicly concluded that GMOs are safe.
S Vaughn White
Park City, Utah, U.S. —  August 15, 2013 12:04pm ET
I might be missing something here, but aren't all the European grapes with american roots genetically modified? Isn't Cabernet Sauvignon a product of genetically modification? And on another note regarding Daniel's comment, haven't most the the world's great wine regions been practicing monoculture for hundreds of years?
Greg Lackmeyer
Thousand Oaks, CA —  August 15, 2013 11:07pm ET
Agreed...genetic modification of the food supply has been going on for centuries. Directed cross-pollination, hybridization, and even Darwinian natural selection has modified the genetic make-up of virtually every "natural" ingredient we eat today. Disease resistant plants survive due to their innate (genetic) ability to resist. Human intervention has existed since man began cultivation...we're just better at it now.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  August 18, 2013 12:22am ET
As I see it, this is a choice between (what we have now) and (what we're left with after the vino-apolcalypse). False choice. Let's prepare GMO vines. Let's have them around in case we completely lose the ones in production now, as in your scenario. But what's the rush? Why move to them now?
Susan Blough
Boise, ID —  August 25, 2013 10:21am ET
People have been genetically modifying plants for thousands of years, sometimes accidentally, sometimes not. GMO now is much more selective, and is still a work in progress, I realize. However, with the known short and longterm side effects of pesticides, I would prefer to have both my food and my environment. It may not be a choice of finding boutique orange juice or oranges- there may be simply none at all, so turning up our noses at possible solutions for the sake of platonic ideals is shortsighted.

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