GM Grapevines or Hybrids?

“When the world goes all ‘Mad Max‘…” is a clause I’ve noticed myself tacking to sentences with regular frequency lately. With the increased understanding/acceptance of climate change science and scientific studies – not to mention observations recorded on numerous citizen science blogs (here and here, for example) and on popular podcasts, etc. – I think about what the future may hold, not just for humans, but for agriculture. Really, though, we – and by “we” I refer to fellow plant pathologists, plant breeders, plant biologists – are already trying to answer agricultural problems before they occur, while others work valiantly to solve long-standing problems in countries with poor access to vital nutrients.

So, as someone in the viticulture and enology industry, at first, it was refreshing to see Mitch Frank‘s recent article in the Wine Spectator. How can we adapt to sustainable agricultural systems with fewer pesticides? What will make the most sense when it comes down to saving an industry? To be sure, humans have shaped the genetics of agricultural plants for centuries through breeding trials (and some errors – consider Sr31 – the gene that confers resistance to stem wheat rust. While it worked beautifully for decades, the wheatrust fungus was able to overcome this resistance gene in wheat, leading to a lethal disease that could potentially threaten wheat crops once again).

In conversations with fellow scientists in the viticulture and enology industry, we wonder whether growers would replant vineyards with a GM grapevine, even if that meant fewer trips through the vineyard with sprayers. Growers don’t actually *enjoy* spraying pesticides. They really don’t. But they DO want to sell their crop, so they spray out of necessity – especially here in the Eastern part of the US, where rain is (in most years) abundant and spurs most fungal grape diseases. If you ask a grower whether he or she would prefer to grow a grape that 1) requires fewer sprays, 2) makes an excellent wine, and 3) sells at a profitable price, you can bet that he or she would be on that bandwagon. But we always get stuck on public acceptance of GMO crops. Carefully designed studies have determined that GMO crops pose no greater risk to animal (including human) health than conventionally bred* crops.

And here’s where this post takes a turn….

But, wait a minute, don’t we already have grapes that fulfill those three preferences – without the need for GMO labeling? Indeed we do; they are called hybrid varieties, and the general public is only vaguely aware of them. Arguably, the price point for some hybrid varieties is not nearly high enough to justify their production in some regions, but in other regions in the US and Canada, growers can make a decent sum on good quality hybrid grapes. After all, a winemaker can make an excellent wine from excellent fruit, but s/he cannot make excellent wine from marginal fruit. So does it make sense to grow fruit on your site that will reach marginal ripeness, at best, or to challenge the market to learn more about varieties outside of the Merlot/Pinot Noir/Chardonnay/Syrah box by growing what actually ripens? If your site can accommodate Riesling production, go for it! If Chambourcin is best-suited to your site, go all in! Ohio produces some of the nicest Chambourcin wines I have ever had the pleasure to try, and this is certainly nothing to be ashamed of! My grandmother could not, and I cannot, sing the praises of Vidal loudly enough. Really, could you get a more versatile grape?

Anyway, I started this post as an opportunity to talk about GM crops – grapevines in particular – because the debate has been on the interwebs for a while, and GM crops are certainly nothing to fear. But as I got going on this post, I found myself thinking more of hybrid grapes and wondering why Mr. Frank only mentioned the word “hybrid” to describe a chimeric gene inserted into grapevine to confer resistance to Pierce’s Disease. Scientific feat aside, the challenge with using one gene to overcome a plant pathogen is that said pathogen eventually overcomes that types of resistance – it just takes a little time. So, growing vast monocultures of PD-resistant grapevines might buy a particular variety a little more time on the wine market, but the industry certainly would not be able to rely solely on this type of grapevine. As with any perennial crop, grape production is complex, multifaceted. Frankly, we have most of the tools – including hybrid grape varieties and general viticultural knowledge – now to produce grapes successfully around the world. Barring the emergence of any major, unforeseen super-duper nasty grapevine-eating microbe, of course.

*Conventionally bred crops are those that are painstakingly crossed by hand in greenhouses and the field to yield several hundred progeny that need to be evaluated for ideal phenotypes – physical traits – that best suit the needs of the industry (disease resistance, drought tolerance, etc.. This usually take several decades. GM science can get us there in less time; not much less, but generally less time – like maybe a couple of decades. Why? Extensive evaluation and testing of plants with the selected markers, among other reasons.

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3 Responses to GM Grapevines or Hybrids?

  1. David Popp says:

    In response to your post about GM:

    I do not fear GM plants either, but I wonder if they simply offer security and convenience to the grower and not real improvement in wine quality. I can buy a tomato that will arrive in perfect condition after being shipped from half a world away, but it is largely tasteless. And, that same tomato, shortly after I get it, will self-destruct into a quivering mass on my kitchen table. Follow the logic all the way to the end. Will we, in 20 or 30 years, be punching our wine order into the food synthesizer on the Starship Enterprise, oohing and aahing over the not-so-perfect replica of a ’61 Petrus that awaits us when the little door slides up? (I’ve often wondered where the raw materials come from for that system. I hope the synthesizer isn’t part of the recycling program!)

    Wine is great art. Artists must suffer (and preferably die alone and penniless) or there is no value to their art. The French tell us that the vines must suffer. We know our growers suffer. And, as a winemaker, I myself have suffered through many a vintage. Remove the suffering from wine and you remove one of its most endearing qualities; its story. People don’t ultimately come to your winery just to drink, or even because of all the prestigious awards you’ve won. They come to hear your story; what unique aromas and flavors you have to offer, how you fought the disease, pestilence, and the dreaded vintage of 2011 to emerge victorious and put pure magic into their glass. In short, many people come to your vineyard/winery because, in a small way, they wish they were you. While there, they share in your struggles and your victories, and, hopefully, they take home a little piece of your life in liquid form.

    I also agree with your sentiments regarding hybrids. My Father used to say, “You gotta dance with who brung ya.” For those of you who don’t speak hillbilly, I will translate. The best wines produced in a region will be those made from grapes that are most at home there. Genetic modification may make some vinifera more possible in the east/midwest by improving survival, but how can it account for variables like slope, aspect, soil conditions, lack of knowledge, water availability, diurnal temperature differences (or lack thereof), and heat summation? Geneticists can, perhaps, make Cabernet ripen earlier or resist disease, but are those the only factors that determine quality? Genetically “fixing” the myriad (regional) shortcomings of a grape variety would be a daunting task for the most skilled among us, and I agree that those fixes would not last, in most cases, nor would they be adequate.

    Furthermore, growers and winemakers need to consider the fact that when they set out to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon in our region, they are in direct competition with every Cab-producing region in the world via the wine shop and, nowadays, even the grocery store. Can you really make an Ohio Cab that will best a $15 bottle from Giant Eagle? And, can you do it 10 years out of 10 or only 1 or 2? And how much will you have to charge for it? More than $15 I’ll bet. (Some wineries answer this by importing grapes from the west coast. You do NOT even want to get me started on that subject.)

    Lastly, the market is voraciously hungry for AB… (Anything But…) the usual characters that the West Coast offers. Why else would Ohio’s extension program be field testing tens of varieties like Siegerrebe, while Mid-Atlantic States champion Spanish grapes like Albarino? The door to the market is so wide open for hybrids right now that you could drive a grape harvester through it! But why can’t we make hybrids the equal, in their own right, of any grapes in the world? There are two answers in my mind. One is marketing – it doesn’t exist. Most people, including those in the wine industry, view hybrids as the ugly stepchildren of vinifera. The other is wine quality, and that is spotty. And, the quality issue is not necessarily in the vineyard anymore. Uniformity of knowledge and technology in the region is slow in coming, and too many may be looking for a quicker fix. This situation is, I suppose, understandable, though. To grow, and industry must first survive.

    To sum up: GM bad, hybrids good. Thanks for listening.

    -David Popp

    • fromclasstoglass says:

      Thank you for your comment, David! Genetic modification in plants is not bad technology; in fact, it has saved industries, improved human nutrition, and aided farmers, to name a few advantages. (We always need to be careful not to confuse technology with politics.) In the case of Mr. Frank’s article, I’d simply suggest that – so far – GM grapevines are not necessary, but there’s no reason to assume there will NEVER be a pest that could wipe out ALL current varieties of grapevines. [In biology, we scientists rarely say ‘never’.] As long as we maintain current grape germplasm resources, we will always have a pool of genetic diversity to support breeding programs to continue to work toward that Cab-like variety that ripens earlier. Besides, regardless of the technology used, if a grape gene is inserted into Cabernet Sauvignon, can it still be called Cabernet Sauvignon, or is it now a hybrid?

      • David Popp says:

        Thanks for your reply!
        GM Cabernet Sauvignon a (lowly) hybrid – that is precious. Marketing is an interest for me, so I was looking at your post more from that angle. I guess it’s human nature to think the grass, or in this case the vine, is greener on the other side of the country. It’s frustrating to hear winery personnel say “Chambourcin, it’s sort of like [the poor man’s] Cabernet Sau…” rather than “Chambourcin is a top-rated red wine in our region that I think you’d really like…”. (Before we can convince our customers that hybrids are better than speckled puppies, we have to believe it ourselves.) On the other hand, if the general public really doesn’t know what a hybrid is, then we have a clean slate upon which to write the story of our region. I guess my concern is that, for the sake of expediency, some in the industry will settle for mediocrity, and that hurts everyone.

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