Marthèlize Tredoux: In defence of Genetically Modified Organisms

By , 5 June 2015



BananaLet’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.

  • Marthèlize Tredoux is the co-owner and editor at Incogvino. By day, she helps SA wineries sell their wine in the USA. She won a wine writing award once.


5 comment(s)

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    Robert Wager | 13 June 2015

    There is so much false of misleading information on the web about GMO’s, including how much testing is done. This article can help people learn the real science.


      Marthelize Tredoux | 13 June 2015

      Thanks, Robert. The Genetic Literacy Project is a *great* resource, out there for everyone to explore. Misinformation is the enemy to progress, be it on GMOs or vaccines – you name it. Thank you for the useful link.

    Ed Elliott | 7 June 2015

    An interesting perspective… On the one hand I agree that uninformed knee-jerk reaction to the acronym GMO is unhelpful and uninformed. Nature is constantly performing “genetic modification”, as it has for the last billion years or so. Natural selection helps determine which genetic changes are survivable and useful.

    Laboratory GE (Genetic Engineering) has two main drawbacks of which both consumers AND growers need to be aware: the speed at which GE crops are ‘tested’ and released into the ecosystem; and the lack of understanding by GE scientists of the many and complex interactions between the GE strain and other plants/animals.

    In ‘natural’ GE the changes typically occur over many, many generations (which in the plant world can be from 3 months to 25 years per ‘generation’. The interactions between the new strain of plant and surrounding microbes, soil fungi, honeybees, birds, other insects, pollinated fruits and other plants, etc. etc. have a chance to be ‘naturally tested’ – typically over decades.

    Wrong choices by the natural genetic lab are weeded out by the process of natural selection. Never before in the history of humanity has so much GE corn (maize) [for example] been spread so widely across the plant in such a short time. No one, and even the most ardent GE scientist admit this, can possibly foresee how the entire biosphere will react and absorb these new strains 100 years from now. It’s just flat out impossible. The largest supercomputers in the world can’t process the incredible amount of possible combinations and permutations of genetic effects on hundreds of thousands of species of plants and animals that will interact with these maize plants over the next decades.

    While I certainly appreciate the potential need to protect a highly susceptible cultivar (and as a wine lover I don’t want to lose my chance to taste the result!!), a balanced approach and humble point of view must be taken or the longer result (perhaps only 25-50 years from now) could be even more disastrous.

      Marthelize Tredoux | 7 June 2015

      Hi Ed. Thanks for the comments. I was afraid someone would shout at me but appreciate the insights.

      You raise a number of valid concerns, and the answers are out there – at least partially. I’d love to know your source for the speed of GE testing. I suppose it depends on what crop, the environmental risks and if it’s commercial or academic research, but regulations are there and (especially in the case of academic research) adhered to because failure to adhere costs you your funding and then it’s goodnight, Felicia.

      In 2013, roughly 85% of corn, 91% of soybeans, and 88% of cotton produced in the US were genetically modified. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Yes, environmental concerns are real though they’re often entwined with massive heaps of misinformation as fuel to scaremonger. Not all scientists work for big supposedly evil companies and the research – as far as possible – is being done to protect ecosystems (including plants, insects and other living creatures). Risk also depends on a number of variables: type of crop, type of environment, type of modification (main three factors likely to influence chances of cross-pollination). For grapes, specifically, it’s much less likely to be an issue in reproductive terms. But with the public opposing things they don’t try to understand, getting field trial approval (the most comprehensive way to study effects in the real world and abort if a GE crop is causing real damage) is difficult. The public often simultaneously demands better research and then thwarts the very research they so fervently demand.

      Grapes specifically aside – here’s the kicker: GE on ‘luxury’ crops like grapes is one thing (grapes aren’t a staple crop). A shade under ONE BILLION people are chronically undernourished. GE technology is the only way we’ll have a hope of feeding them. Organic farming won’t. ‘Organic’ is a nice idea but it’s for the developed world (for the rich)- nobody’s ever starved because they haven’t been able to eat organic. Products now in development with gene-splicing techniques offer the possibility of higher yields, lower inputs of agricultural chemicals and water (isn’t that also what we want?!), enhanced nutrition, and even plant-derived, orally active vaccines.

      In a perfect world, we shouldn’t have to choose the environment over feeding the hungry. With proper development and (public) support of GE technology, we won’t have to. Would you want to have to make that choice?

      Marthelize Tredoux | 8 June 2015

      Hi Ed. I hope you check back here at some point. Here’s a link to a recent and very on-point piece that you may find interesting. Cheers 🙂

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