Let’s talk bananas. Grab a banana from your fruit bowl. Unless you import from Malaysia or Thailand, it will be a Cavendish – the main commercial cultivar. 60 years ago, it would have been a Gros Michel. In the 1950s, the majority of commercial plantations were wiped out in South America and Africa by a single fungus – Fusarium oxysporium. The Cavendish cultivar was immune to the strain which devastated plantations and emerged as the replacement. Nature does not back down from a challenge though, and new strains of Fusarium are now threatening global banana production again.
Wait. What? Bananas? Is there a secret banana-wine industry that has quietly gone global when we were all making Pinotage? Of course not. But what happened to the banana could happen to grapevine. Hang on. It has happened to grapevine. Phylloxera, anyone? It was an aphid, not a fungus, but it amounts to the same: catastrophic devastation of vineyards, loss of production and an industry on its knees.
Sounding alarmist? Good. It should. Recall for a moment that wine grapes are all the same species: Vitis vinifera. That’s one species; the same genetic material. This genetic singularity makes it vulnerable to disease and pests. Grapevines haven’t been extensively bred for disease resistance in the same way as other crops. Grafting V. vinifera onto rootstocks to confer resistance is a key strategy (that’s how phylloxera was defeated) but no guarantee against all possible pathogens. All we need is the next phylloxera or a grapevine version of Fusarium and there will be trouble.
The Californian wine industry may already be facing a challenge of this nature with Pierce’s disease – a bacterium (Xylella fastidiosa) spread by an insect vector (the glassy-winged sharpshooter). The bacteria lives in the plant’s xylem, eventually blocking the flow of water and killing the plant. There is no known cure and it also affects other crops, including citrus and stone fruits. While Pierce’s disease is not yet present in South Africa, our climate is particularly well suited for it and the vector. If ever introduced accidentally, it would be bad news.
Time to take off your tinfoil hats, vaccinate your children and put down the organic tomatoes because I’m going to tie it all together with three letters that strike panic into the hearts of the as-yet-uninformed: GMO. I know, I know. Keep reading. You can fling produce at me when we’re done.
GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) get a bad rap. They’re the autism-causing vaccines of the food world (spoiler alert: vaccines don’t cause autism and GMOs aren’t evil). Blatant fear mongering aside, I appreciate that the concept – as familiar as the term itself has become – is quite technical and not always fully understood. And when something isn’t understood, it’s scary and when something is scary, it gets vilified. This excuse may be fine for Joe Public but if you’re involved in an agricultural sector, you have no excuse for being uninformed – nay, you have a duty to BE informed.
So let’s talk about GMOs and grapevine.
We are decades away from seeing commercially planted genetically engineered (GE) grapevines, but the research has already begun. All major grape-growing countries in the world are studying grape genomics and engineering, including Australia, Italy, Germany, USA and South Africa, with research mostly focused on disease resistance. When the pathogenic apocalypse descends on the world’s grapevines, scientists will be ready to fight back.
The main public concern around GMO edibles is food safety, which I’ve never really understood. Crossing an apple with an apple breeds an apple. Genetically engineering an apple still makes it an apple. A safe, edible apple. GMO crops are subjected to rigorous safety testing – much more stringent than crops bred through traditional means (which is perplexing since genetic engineering typically changes a single gene with unimagined precision, but breeding randomly alters multiple genes with no way to predict the effect). Nearly all ‘concerns’ about GMOs are unfounded or simply stem from wild misinformation.
Talk around genetically engineered grapevines in the local wine industry seems nearly non-existent. Perhaps this is because any commercial reality is so far off. Perhaps keeping heads firmly in sand and succumbing to the oversupply of panic and the undersupply of facts is just easier. But when that next apocalyptic disease hits our picturesque vineyards, we’ll be glad that salvation was already years in the making.