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Is There a Genetically Modified Wine in Your Future?

This week at a symposium in Napa, various stakeholders came together to discuss the future/possibility/fallacy of genetically modified wine grapes. The proceedings are falteringly covered by a poorly written article in the Press Democrat. This is an issue that's worth talking about though. Here's a Vinography Cliff's Notes version:

Environmentalists, Slow Food, Stanford Professors and general Organic-istas
Genetically modifying plants is morally and ethically wrong ("playing God" is a phrase that's used often) not to mention dangerous from an environmental perspective. We don't know enough about the consequences of mixing DNA from various species together to understand what we might unleash as a result -- either in our own bodies (e.g. poison, disease) or in the plant world (e.g. pestilence, plague, pests, etc.).

Oh, and there's this: wine has been made just fine without GM crops for oh, let's see... 25 centuries.

Monsanto and Agribusiness
"Biotechnology accelerates traditional breeding practices and raises the possibility of increasing food production for a growing world population. Genetically engineered crops developed by Monsanto are more resistant to disease, which reduces the use of chemical pesticides."

In other words, you can grow more grapes, better grapes, and you don't have to deal with nasties like Phyloxxera and Pierce's Disease and stuff like that.

Oh, and then there's this: we become bizillionaires if enough of you start using this stuff.

Grape Growers
Well, the idea of using less pesticide is generally a good thing, but most people who really want to use less pesticide can do so without GM products. The big draw here is the disease issue, though. Grapes are a livelihood and if they are wiped out by a disease, people can't feed their families, not to mention the fact that there won't be any wine.

Oh, and then there's this: will people stop buying our grapes if they are genetically modified?

Conscientious winemakers
Keep that #&^$&*^& @#$%^ out of our wines.

Big profit winemakers
If we were confident people would buy the wines, they why not. Less disease and less pesticides mean higher yields, lower costs, and higher margins.

Oh, and then there's this: the kickbacks from the big agribusiness companies don't hurt either...

This is a thorny issue, and not unlike the issues faced by farmers all across the United States. I tend to end up right down the middle -- some level of genetic modification is ok, especially when it means crossing strains of the same type of organism. Lord knows we've been doing that for eons already as a species. However the thought of fish genes in my strawberries makes me kind of ill.

At the end of the day, I'd tend to not buy wines that were made from genetically modified grapes, if only for the reason that we seem to have done very well without GM in the wine world for a long time.

What do you think?

Comments (6)

Tom Wark wrote:
01.14.05 at 8:40 PM

I think...a lot of people are making assumptions, taking stands, signing petitions, getting into politics, dissing, defending, and jumping to conclusions with very little information.

Good post.


Bertrand wrote:
01.15.05 at 1:26 AM

In agriculture, genetic selection has done already a lot, long before GM crops appeared : It just took longer time . But the tomatoes we eat today are light years away from the original tomatoes . Anyway, integrating insecticides in the plant themselves, for example, makes us go in unchartered waters . And also any wine obtained through GM engineering should absolutely have it said on the label .

Tony Quila wrote:
01.16.05 at 8:16 AM

Thus will end the romance of wine and its connection of the past to the future. It will become another manufactured product. Will it be made in China and sold at Walmart too?

I'm sure some will say it is better, easier, more consistent. But how many of the wines in your cellar would have been improved by GM? And how do you define improved? ...more personality? ...more terroir? ...cheaper to produce? As a consumer if I want a fruit flavored acloholic drink, I'll mix a screwdriver. Wine has been and should remain something real. That is what I will decide to buy.

This is clearly a long term process. Disease and pest resistant vines will take several years to reach production. It will be interesting to see who (besides agribusiness) whores their wine for dollars. And yes, GM wine must be identified as such on the label.

01.19.05 at 12:17 AM

Most people who know about my Slow Food affiliation are surprised to learn that I don't have a real problem with genetic modification in its modern form. Though it's not exactly like the GM "we've been doing for millenia", it strikes me as no different than using "natural flavors" that are precisely extracted from the source as opposed to "artificial flavors" that are synthesized in the lab.

What I _do_ have a problem with is how corporations are allowed to play fast and loose with it. Monsanto cleverly set up lots and lots of laws and loopholes well before genetic modification became a watchword (see the book Against the Grain). So now they get to release new organisms with scant testing, backed by bogus theories about how they won't interfere with natural species. Monsanto and others like them have no interest in protecting biodiversity because that means people are buying plants that aren't from Monsanto. And so yes, they make themselves (and others who _don't_ want to play, because lo and behold seeds go farther than they thought) targets for diseases that could wipe out huge amounts of crops. Biodiversity is just like operating system diversity: lots of o/s's means you'll have a much harder time wreaking lots of havoc. And when the diseases inevitably come? It's our food supply they're playing with, so you can expect huge shortages.

billy wrote:
01.19.05 at 6:18 PM

Excellent and entertaining post. I think that GM wines are inevitable and that, in blind tastings, they will do as well as non-GM wines. This means that, ultimately, GM wines will achieve a higher value and (typically) lower cost to the consumer than non-GM wines.

Nevertheless, non-GM winemaking has survived as long as people have had grapes and feet. GM wines will probably be great for the business (even the local and small commercial vinyards). But I think that the "soul" of the wine and winemaking will be lost with this transition.

In 100 years, we (or our children) will probably be all drinking GM wine or toasting the "quaintness" of the historic non-GM vinyards ("how DID they survive?" we'll muse).

Of course, the foot-pressed wine lovers probably had similar laments regarding the advent of winepress technology.

Chris wrote:
01.27.05 at 8:41 AM

Who knows what GM crops will do to us? Who knows, maybe they will be good for us; or maybe they will be bad for us. All we have now is people assuming that they will be bad for us. I feel we should let them genetically alter the foods, but only certain foods. Foods that we need to be immune to certain things. What I am trying to say is there are foods that are great the way they are and altering them I feel will drastically change them, to the point of being just a past time. I feel that wine should not be genetically altered due to the possibility it would take away from their value and their ambiance. Wine is all about the time spent while drinking it. Don’t you think that genetically altering wine would also change the taste? Having a glass of wine would not be as simple anymore. Also having them genetically altered would make them immune to many things therefore I am sure vineyard owners would get lazy and greedy and start growing the vineyards in other countries, therefore ruining the diversity of having a French wine and a California wine. Those are just a few reasons I feel they should only alter the foods that would help out humanity.

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