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[SANET-MG] outrage over gm grapes
The use of GM rootstocks is the first step towards all GM wine.
California has been silent about such developments. In US it is unclear
which wines and beers contain GM components. Sweden is the first country
in Europe to market GM beer from Bt corn.That brew is certainly suitable
for fattening steers and swedes!
September 26, 2005 ny times
A Project to Remodel Grape Genes Yields Mostly Outrage
By CRAIG S. SMITH
COLMAR, France, Sept. 21 - Behind six-foot fencing, watched by
unblinking video eyes, and guarded by motion detectors that set off
bright halogen lights and a silent police alarm in the event of
nocturnal intruders, there lurks what some people in this gentle
wine-making region consider an unholy alliance between the noble grape
and "Frankenstem": 70 grapevines grafted onto genetically modified
The operation here by the National Institute for Agronomic Research is
meant to demonstrate that transgenic plants can cure one of grape
growing's most nettlesome ills: the fan-leaf virus, which turns leaves
yellow and kills the flowers before they can form fruit, reducing
vineyard yields. The virus is present in as many as a third of French
But in a land where winemaking is a sacred art and genetic modification
is blasphemy to many people, selling the idea to the public has been slow.
"We feel that we don't have the right to alter nature," said René Muré,
glaring behind large tortoise-shell-rimmed eyeglasses, at a nearby
winery that his family has run since 1648. He contends that wine should
be an expression of the land and that the tiny worms that carry the
virus and even the virus itself are part of the complex and wondrous
biology that makes for great wine.
Mr. Muré's dismay is part of a growing concern in Europe about the
gradual spread of genetically modified plants despite popular
opposition. Transgenic corn is growing in more than 2,500 acres in
France, up from just over 40 in 2004.
Nowhere is the genetic tinkering more contentious than in the vineyards,
whose richly varied produce, together with the country's cheese, as much
as anything else define French culture.
The effort to modify grapevines genetically started in the 1990's with
Moët & Chandon, the venerable Champagne maker, which was trying to
combat the virus.
Gene splicers argue that a transgenic answer is the only effective way
to stop the virus, short of saturating the soil with pesticides to kill
the worms that carry it, or tearing out infected vineyards and leaving
the land fallow for 10 years.
Moët & Chandon's scientists, working with a hybrid of the Vitis vinifera
and Vitis berlandieri vines known as 41B, developed a transgenic
fanleaf-resistant plant onto which grapevines could be grafted. The
rootstock is used primarily for growing white grapes.
The company eventually won approval for a field test from the Ministry
of Agriculture and quietly planted dozens of the gene-altered grapevines
in 1996, only to rip them out three years later when the French press
learned of the project.
Worried about tarnishing its image, the company turned over the genetic
material to the National Institute for Agronomic Research, which has
been working ever since to win over skeptical winemakers.
Winemakers worry that someone could steal the genetically modified
grapevines and transplant them in the neighboring vineyards, "as a kind
of bioterrorism," said Olivier Lemaire, lead scientist on the project.
French grapevines are already growing on borrowed roots. The country's
vineyards were nearly wiped out in the late 1800's when an aggressive
ground-borne aphid, the grape phylloxera, arrived from the United States
and spread quickly. Only American vines were resistant to the
sap-sucking insect, so French vineyards were replanted with American
plants that had European grapevines grafted onto them. The practice has
continued ever since.
The National Institute is using five transgenic strains of 41B, each
with a gene that produces virus-killing material implanted in a
different place in the rootstock's DNA, the substance in the cell
nucleus that contains the genetic code. Mr. Lemaire watches over the
young plants on the institute's grounds.
But local vintners worry that any confusion in the public's mind could
taint their wine.
"We asked that they not use an Alsatian grape," said Jean-Paul Goulby,
president of the Alsatian Winemakers Association, adding that any link
between Alsatian wines and genetically modified grapevines "would be
catastrophic for us."
To ease those fears, the institute chose Pinot Meunier, a variety used
in Champagne, to graft onto the transgenic rootstocks. The vine has
fuzzy leaves that are easily differentiated from Alsatian varieties.
Mr. Lemaire said the institute has also agreed to cut off all buds
before they can develop into flowers. Thus, the plants will not be used
to produce wine. He emphasized that there was no exchange of DNA between
the rootstock and the grapevine grafted onto it. There may, however, be
an exchange of RNA, a nucleic acid present in all cells, and one of the
things the scientists want to discover is whether the genetically
modified rootstock will send virus-killing RNA into the grapevine,
making the entire plant immune.
The scientists also created a test area to see if the transgenic
rootstock caused the virus itself to mutate or if the worms migrated
toward unprotected rootstocks planted in clean soil.
It will take at least two years before they have any results, and the
test is scheduled to run through 2009, when the results will be
evaluated and the plants destroyed.
The careful planning has not assuaged everyone. Earlier this month,
about 40 protesters gathered outside the institute's gates.
Mr. Muré, looking at a verdant hillside combed by rows of grape-heavy
vines, worries that the introduction of genetically modified plants
would only create disease-resistant, climate-adapted vines and increase
the volume of mass-produced wine with a standardized flavor.
"There needs to be a multitude of organisms in the soil for the land to
express itself in the vine," he said, adding that wine quality eroded
after World War II as more and more chemicals were applied to the land.
His vineyard stopped using pesticides and herbicides a decade ago, part
of a growing trend in France to produce organic wines.
He said a carefully tended vineyard could survive without pesticides,
herbicides or transgenic plants. "The more diversity, the greater the
character of the wine," he said, "but there will be no diversity if you
use a clone."
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