GMO Experiments a Disgrace

Just because it is science, does not mean I have to like it. Not that I can claim breaking into a sweat of hysteria and reaching for the gas-mask whenever the term Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is mentioned.
If plants can be subjected to genetic variations that would rid the world of starvation without any detrimental long-term effects on the environment, go for it. I would support GMO if it really benefits mankind where there is a real need and where it can be proven the implementation of GMO is all positive and no negative.
The wine industry does, however, not fall into the category of an industry requiring GMO’s to improve the quality of life or the human race in general. And that is why I object to the University of Stellenbosch’s Institute for Wine Biotechnology’s plans to go ahead with experimental GMO vines in Stellenbosch.
The two issues at hand are necessity and the potential harm to the image of the South African wine industry.
With regards to issue one: why consider any genetic modification at any stage of the wine-making process? When the rumours of GMO dabbling by the Institute for Wine Biotechnology surfaced I called a few winemakers, most of whom told me that the only reason something like GMO vines would be considered was to eliminate virus’s and diseases. Think no leaf-roll and no mildew after those warm summer rains.
But, I ask with tears in my eyes, is it really worth playing God by means of genetic modification to make life on the wine farm a bit easier? When it comes to bearing the brunt of what nature throws at you, wine farmers have little to complain about when comparing their irritating bouts of mildew with a impoverished maize farmer in Ethiopia who has lost a total crop due to a hail-storm.
I have no formal ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ or any other – qualification in viticulture, but know that the vine must be one of the hardiest pieces of plant ever cultivated. If you need GMO’s to fix your vines, you are in the wrong business.
And, as little as we in the industry like to believe, the world is not going to starve if a global wine crop fails. Last time I looked, the tanks were pretty full, China!
The other reason I question the necessity of GMO in the wine industry is because this practise would destroy the fabric of wine’s diverse nature. This is the one aspect that makes wine intriguing, unique and worth pursuing: taste of place, specific style, taste of place.
Get the GMO ball rolling and you could theoretically create a Pinot Noir vine that will produce grapes of the same genetic make-up and style as those found in Beaune or at Hamilton Russell. This will enable winemakers to replicate specific wine styles and intrinsic from Koekenaap to Champagne; Devon to Dunedin.
Like Guinness stout or Coca Cola, you could just plonk down a winery to make any wine you want, anywhere in the world to a predetermined taste. Ch?+¦???+¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¬teau Global, anyone?
(Of course, even global giants like McDonalds have banned the use of any GM products, anywhere, which should get one thinking: do global behemoths like McDonalds who are accountable to billions of consumers know something about the perceptions of GMO’s the wine industry doesn’t?)
My second reason for disagreeing with the GMO experiments in Stellenbosch is the short-sightedness of those responsible in failing to realise the damage this can have on the already shaky image of the South African wine industry.
Labour issues, farm conditions, rubber-tainted wines, the 2004 flavourant scandal…..all these are being used by our competitors in the global markets in attempts to shunt us aside. Throw in “SA wine industry looks to GMO’s” to this mix, and you’d have a brew to make a Macbeth witch puke in her cauldron.
The failure of those responsible to see this time-bomb is mind-boggling. Especially when looking at the one marketing tool the South African industry has been using to characterise our wines, namely biodiversity and nature. It is going to be very difficult to maintain the industry’s Variety is in our Nature campaign, with its commitment to the floral kingdom, birds, chameleons and other critters when you ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ the industry ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ are condoning a little bit of GMO experimentation.
The fact that the Institute for Wine Biotechnology also has the arrogance to perform its little experiment at Welgevallen, probably the most hallowed part of vineland real estate due to the role that it has played in the birth of the South African wine industry, also leaves an especially bitter taste.
I would like to end with a question to producers: would you ever like to see the words “Made from Genetically Modified Grapes” on your label?
Case closed.

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15 thoughts on “GMO Experiments a Disgrace

  1. Bravo!!

    Super passionate argument against this most worrying unnecessary and potentially dangerous experiment.

    If made from Genetically Modified Grapes+ô+¦-+Gö£Göñ+ô+¦-úGö£-¦+ô+¦-+Gö£+ª appears on labels of SA wines they will not find shelf space in the UK where almost every restaurant and cafe carries a statement about not using GMO foods.

  2. Emile, see

    for a very circumspect take on the debate by Jamie Goode.

    The complexity of the issue is daunting to say the least. For instance, how to choose between wine made from genetically resistent grapes that didn’t need spraying, and wine made from conventional grapes that may contain pesticide residue? Which is the lesser evil?

    Also, shouldn’t the University of Stellenbosch be free to pursue science for science’s sake? Who knows what they’ll learn in the process?

    In posing these questions I am not – note not – taking a stance in support of GM vines.

    Definitely an issue we should write and talk about much more.

  3. Hi Jeanine
    Great to hear from you. We have lost one of the most lucid wine writers to New Zealand. Damn!
    The concern is perception. South Africa can do without the reputation of GM experimentation as we have other fish to fry – such as creating Brand SA. GM wines being illegal in Europe, why bother at all? Secondly, I may have an overtly romantic approach towards wine, subscribing to the Hemingway “good wine is the most civilised thing on earth” slogan. Genetically modifying any aspect of the vineyard – where good wine is made – counters the essence of what wine has achieved for over 8000 years. There is so little to truly revolt against these days, but I am willing to go all the way for this one.

  4. It is amazing that new technology gets people to resist and complain.
    If it is at all possible to create a vine with resilience and the ability to fight off diseases and certainly many of those ugly bugs out there, it is in my opinion, a great step forward.
    There will be an initial, more costly outlay for the planting material, but think of the decrease in costs of pesticides, spray machinery, less use of fuels, less emmitions from tractors etc.
    Genetically modified material, in my opinion is the lesser of the evils.
    Just think of the dicussions around “cork or not cork”?
    Some people like to stick to the “old world way” and make wine for the elite few. If it is at all possible to get the public to drink more wine, it must be made less expensive to produce and there must be more consistency in production.
    After all the winemaker must still manipulate all the factors at his or her beck and call. That and terroir should be enough to create the differences between good and bad wine. There will always be area differences.

  5. Hi Chris
    Point taken. I am of the opinion that the one point of differentiation wine has above other alcoholic beverages is its umbilical connection to a specific region – local or international – and its vintage variance. GM will make an international brand possible, that tastes the same whether it is made in Tangiers or Marlborough. This would rid wine of its natural charm.
    But my major qualm is with the damage our GM experimentation can do to our international image. If this is of no concern to you, I don’t care. It is to me.

  6. In my humble opinion and reading through the comments it all sounds very logical and good from both sides. One point that i have mentioned for a while now is that the Organic FAD that is out there with wine, to me, is not sustainable. I dont know of any farmer that would spray his vines just for the sake of spraying!!! The cost is just too high and if it is precautionary then thats the basics of it. I think most farmers are trying to be as ORGANIC as possible, upto when mother nature steps in. However, even if this GMO grape is made to withstand desease etc. it still needs to grow in soil different to the farm next door, in the sun harsher in point X than point A and in a climate different in JHB than in Nelspruit. So the flavour profile should still be able to be dictated by the climate and terroir it grows in shouldnt it??

    Then it comes to the winemakers skills in the cellar which in the end is what its all about. Im sure that all of us have seen wonderful grapes turn into nothing in the bottle because of whats happening in the cellar and vice versa…Hope i didnt sound too stupid but

  7. Dear Emile,

    GM technology is here to stay so best you get used to the idea. Yes there are some dangers in it, but most of the time it is applied to make the world a better place. Take insulin for instance, it comes from a geneticaly modified gut bacteria and not pig pancreas anymore. Would you rather have pigs slautered or a bacteria? There is nothing dangerous about this vineyard. It is to allow people to make wine from a pesticide free vines. Yes, the world perceives all GM research as negative. That is because they fear what they don’t understand. How do you think people would have felt 50 years ago about nuclear power plants? I am sure they were fearing the worst, like people do now about GM technology. I find it amazing that wine writers and retailers always think that new technology in the wine industry will make all the wines from the world taste the same. There are so many permutations involved in producing wine that such a thought is actually quite bisarre. We are not about to replant the whole SA wine industry with GM vineyards. America however has almost replanted all their maize and soy crops with GM versions, as a matter of interest. We are merely looking into future possibilities and we will not release it on the world until the world is ready for it. So no, it won’t do our industry damage and in fact if you understand the technology you will be proud that we are the leaders in the world with regards to applying it to viticulture. Maybe you should make the effort, go talk to prof Melanie Vivier at the Department of Viticulture and get the facts. Winewriters are very powerful people to wine consumers. If you say something is bad, wine drinkers believe you and that is part the blame for the negative image GM technology has in the wine industries of the world.

  8. Dear Karien
    I will bet you a case of my favourite wine – Kanonkop Paul Sauer – that GM wines will not be found on the market in 10 years time. No, we will not accept or get used to it. You are in the minority, or live somewhere in the ethereal zone above wine’s most important element, namely the consumer. Comparing vineyards to soya and maize just reaffirms your inability to understand the argument. Perception plays a bigger role in wine than any other agricultural product. And if you read the reports about consumer trends, the tribe has spoken: No GM vines, ever.

  9. @ Karien O’Kennedy
    “but most of the time it is applied to make the world a better place”

    Nonsense, Karien, it is there because huge multi-national companies see potential profit in it.
    This does not by itself make GM bad, but please don’t play the altruism card on behalf of the Monsanto’s of the world.

  10. Never is a long time. Maybe we should get together on the porch of the old age home one day and reflect on this conversation. I hear what you say and I understand all too clearly that consumer perception is totally against anything GM in wine. There are certain GM situations that I won’t stand for either, like for instance creating a wine yeast that will overexpress guava or pineapple aroma in wines. That is manipulating wine aroma and it is not natural. But manipulating a vine to allow you to grow grapes organically? Surely that is what we strive for, a pesticide free environment. This particular case is for the greater good, it is a strive to wholesomeness. Perceptions can be changed, not overnight, and I agree in this case, not in ten years time either, but this is good research. If people like yourself who is influential in terms of consumer perception can try to see the positive in this and start to write good things about it, perceptions can slowly but surely start to change and we can reap the benefits of a cleaner and greener environment.

  11. Thanks Karien. I have seen Ms Viviers presentation. Re contacting her: Wines of South Africa have been trying to get reaction from the University for three days now so as to address the justifiable concerns re GM, but to no avail. So I’ll just get in the queue.

  12. Please can I join in the bet on whether GM wine will be available in 10 years time? I will offer a favourite of mine, a Chardonnay and I hope it will by then be from a grape bred by GM techniques.

    How do you think ‘nature’ does it? By magic? No of course not, it is by mutation or as we know it mutatgenesis.

    Please Emile, go and do a degree on plant biochemistry and then return with your opinions backed up by some facts and then support them with references. Until then your views have little value as you are arguing (admittedly very persuasively) from a position of considerable ignorance.

  13. Dear Jonathon
    I have never made any claims to provide a scientific argument. My views are based on the negative perceptions surrounding GM, of which there are countless examples. I don’t care whether a Nobel Peace Prize winner comes concocts drought resistant GM vines. The harm of any GM intervention to the image of wine outweighs the credibility of the brightes scientist with the best research. As far as the wager goes, the clock is ticking. And while you are at it, provide me with one winemaker who is willing to put the words “Genetically Modified Vines” on his label.
    Thanks for your comment.

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