Marthélize Tredoux: Why genetic engineering is not all bad

GMMy previous post on pesticides attracted some interest, so I wanted to follow up with simple to digest bits about the upsides of genetic engineering. I’ll tie it back to why it might eventually be a critical technology for application in the vineyards too (since this is WineMag). Pass the smelling salts for everyone who just fainted at that and let’s get started.

Again, a quick clarification on some terms used.

  • GMO = Genetically Modified Organism (so if you want to be pedantic, you should for example talk about GM corn rather than GMO corn because that’s just correct).
  • GE = Genetically Engineered. GM = GE. Two terms for the same process: “the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome using biotechnology”.
  • Biotechnology – any technological application using biological or living systems to make or modify products or processes for specific applications. This is an umbrella term, usually connected to fields like bioengineering, molecular biology and bio-manufacturing

Since RoundUp/glyphosate is quickly becoming a straw man in this whole debate, I’ll pull in a few different examples of existing and potential advancements. There are, of course, concerns about GE tech. Maybe I’ll round out this tangent with a third piece focusing on the real issues vs the imagined ones. But for today, I want to focus on the good stuff:

Bt – crops with built-in pesticides
Bt toxins (proteins from a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis) have been inserted into transgenic crops to confer resistance against certain insects. In 2013, Bt brinjals were introduced commercially in Bangladesh as part of GM trials. To date, it has been planted on 12 ha across 120 farms. These farmers have cut pesticide use by 80% so far – a rate which would not only alleviate negative environmental effects but also the health of farmers. Farmers are also reporting unprecedented increases in yield, which bodes well for their economic well-being.

Golden Rice – the unavailable lifesaver
This one kills me. But not literally. Not like Vitamin A deficiency kills thousands of children annually, and leaves many thousands more disabled. Between 250,000 – 350,000 children go blind each year due to Vitamin A Deficiency. Golden Rice – a GE cultivar enriched with Vitamin A – has been available since 2002. Syngenta had been key in developing the technology and essentially made it freely available for use, in an attempt to bypass opposition from the anti-GMO lobby. It didn’t work. The technology was opposed and Golden Rice remains unused aside from a handful of free licenses for subsistence farming – not nearly the potential scale to make a significant difference in communities severely affected by malnutrition.

Organic cotton – a celebrity gets it wrong
In 2016, Emma Watson wore a Calvin Klein dress, made in collaboration with green consultancy Eco-Age. Via Instagram, Ms Watson extolled the virtues of organic cotton above conventional, specifically that organic cotton is farmed without using harmful chemicals. It seems that Hermione didn’t do her homework this time around though. The Bt technology I mentioned previously is also in cotton. While not as harmful as, say, copper sulfate, organic cotton farmers do spray their crops with Bt and other substances to battle severe crop damage from insects. Farmers growing Bt cotton have reduced their insecticide spraying significantly. States like Oklahoma report yields doubling over the past 20 years, improved fibre quality, better weed control and insecticide use down by more than 50%. You know what that is? That’s an improvement in sustainability. Impressive, no?

What about grapevine?
The potential for GE technology in grapevine (including what’s being worked on and what has been proposed) is a topic for discussion all on its own. It should definitely be noted that the potential application for GE technology is not limited to pest control. The creeping effects of climate change will eventually irrevocably change the viticulture landscape. The ability of different regions to produce quality grapes will change as rainfall and temperatures rise or fall outside the ideal conditions for grape growing.

If a technology was available to mitigate these effects – a grapevine that can deal with increased CO2 levels, or one that is able to produce equivalent yield at higher temperatures – and prolong a wine region’s lifespan in the face of major climate shifts, isn’t that something we need to consider reasonably, and without hysteria?

  • Marthélize Tredoux is the co-owner and editor at Incogvino. By day, she helps SA wineries sell their wine in the USA. She won the Veritas Young Wine Writers Competition in 2013.

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