WO Stellenbosch (genetically modified)

The state authorities have – eventually, and against strong opposition – given the go-ahead for genetically modified grapevines to be planted in the Stellenbosch heartland of the Cape wine industry. So now the people in white coats at Stellenbosch University’s Institute for Wine Biotechnology will have their experimental way, unless the appeal against the decision from three environmental lobby groups, SAFeAGE, Earthlife Africa and the African Centre for Biosafety, is successful (the appeal was reported in the Cape Times recently). But given the government’s track record with regard to genetically modified crops, I wouldn’t recommend holding your breath till the appeal succeeds.

In fact, it suddenly occurs to me (somewhat tongue in cheek) that the government, understandably not much impressed by the wine industry’s lack of “transformation”, might be setting out to sabotage it by this move – there’s no doubt that once news of it properly leaks out, it will be leapt upon by the sort of person who recently called for a boycott of Cape wine because of the shooting of beached whales, as well as by brighter people with their own interests to advance (and no doubt muttering about Frankenwine). Although there is no real implication for the industry as a whole – beyond the arguably minuscule risk of  risk of contamination of adjacent fertile grapevine varieties by the GM cultivars – just the invocation of what is a dreadful concept to many people will do harm to an industry that is trying (perhaps perversely) to make itself more appealing to winelovers by promoting its biodiverse credentials.

The background, briefly, for those who don’t recall what Grape reported  just under three years ago, when the scientists made their application to be allowed to proceed. We wrote then:

The Institute’s Grapevine Biotechnology programme has been for some time now pursuing research into genetically modified grapevine plants, and observing performance of plants grown in greenhouses – apparently to their satisfaction. But, they say, field trials are necessary to properly assess performance. Hence the plan to plant nearly a hectare of the vines on the University’s Welgevallen experimental farm on the outskirts of Stellenbosch. The site is fenced and locked.

Apparently, the transgenic vines will be covered with nets ‘to prevent seed dispersal by birds or animals’, and flowers on the plants will be bagged to ‘minimise pollen dispersal’.

Those protesting against the proposal thought the risks too high, and the programme unnecessary. We carried voluminous arguments both ways on the website (I can’t provide a link, because we chucked our archives in our reincarnation at the beginning of this year).

The problem for the wine industry that the transgenic vines growing under sunny Stellenbosch skies will bring is one of association, of image. Wine is one of the few foodstuffs left with some image of “naturalness” (well, at least to those who haven’t seen the list of permitted additives, or aren’t aware of the nasty stuff sprayed onto most vineyards), and there is no way that anyone will want to be the first to admit using even genetically modified yeasts, let alone grapevines, however beneficial they might be – and in fact, of course, a fungus-resistant vine would mean a good deal less spraying with fungicides, a great boon to the environment.

The trouble is, hardly any of us trust the scientists any more when they are seen to be in cahoots with the big business interests that seem to drive so much university research. I don’t know who’s funding this research by the Institute for Wine Biotechnology, or if it’s nice and pure. But I do suspect that it’s going to do damage anyway. I suppose poor old Wosa has already drafted a damage-control press release in case the rest of the wine world exultantly discovers what is happening.

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