Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wine Spectator supports GMO grapevines made with human and insect DNA

How would you like to drink wine made from a grapevine that contained human and insect DNA?

Wine Spectator thinks this is a great idea. And if you disagree, you're just a loudmouth in a mob.

This is so extreme, right wing even for the Tea Party, that you might think I'm making it up, or it's a new David Cronenberg movie.

A post that ran yesterday on Wine Spectator by Mitch Frank makes this argument: some unknown wine disease might one day threaten grapevines, and therefore we better start genetically modifying grapevines to prepare for it.

Here's one Spectator pro-GMO argument:
"Would GMO vines be vastly different than the vines we have produced by spending centuries selecting our favorite vines, cutting off branches and propagating them? Man has fundamentally shaped the evolution of the Vitis vinifera we treasure today."

To answer the question: Yes, vines with human and insect DNA spliced into them would be very different from Vitis vinifera vines.

"OK, hand me the grapevine"
For one thing, the overwhelming majority of the grape varieties we like best were naturally occurring. No scientist combined Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc DNA to get Cabernet Sauvignon: it just happened. 

How would Cabernet Franc naturally cross with cockroach DNA?

Maybe that's unfair: maybe I should choose a better-tasting insect. OK, Cabernet Franc and Australian green-bottomed ants. Would the delicious citrusy flavor of the ants' formic acid enhance the final product? Wine Spectator says, "Notes of blackberry, tobacco leaf and chitin. 91 points."

Another Spectator excerpt:
"What if a GMO vine saved wine from extinction? Last year, scientists crafted a hybrid gene from human and insect DNA that appears to help grapevines fight off Pierce's disease, which killed many California vineyards in the mid-1990s."
This is a straw man argument that leaps from a reasonable question to a completely unrelated example.

I'll agree with Wine Spectator on its conclusion that IF a modern-day phylloxera emerged AND nothing else worked -- NOTHING else worked -- than GMOs could be an option. If a pest emerged that threatened to wipe out wine as we know it, we would have to consider something as drastic as grafting Vitis vinifera onto American rootstock was in the 1870s.

But Pierce's disease is a bad example. I'm sorry Ojai Vineyard's Adam Tolmach lost a vineyard to it; I love his wines. Temecula was wiped out by it; that's awful. But this is not all the wine in the world.

Texas is a hotspot for Pierce's disease, and growers there have lost many vineyards. The insect carriers of Pierce's disease thrive near creeks. In Texas they have spent plenty of time and money on researching Pierce's disease, and the most effective solution so far has been, don't plant vineyards beside creeks.

There are spots of Pierce's disease in Napa and Sonoma Counties even now. The state of California is taking it very seriously. But wine as we know it does not appear to be at risk.

Yes, I want to be in your wine!
Is it worth letting Cockroach/Chardonnay -- and don't forget the human DNA, so it's really more of a Manroach/Chardonnay -- vines out into the wild?

Wine Spectator is making a very Tea Party argument: the rights of the individual outweigh the concerns of society. And screw our descendants: the Earth is ours to exploit.

Wine Spectator is on a "do whatever you must to ensure that our Cabernet is ripe enough" kick lately; two months ago it ran a blog post arguing that the law should be changed to allow California winemakers to add sugar to their wines.

I'd rather see that relatively minor change than a Kafka-esque metamorphosis. Monstrous vermin -- and lively Grenache!

What if one grower can only succeed with a Cockroach/Chardonnay hybrid on his creekside property? Does it matter if Manroach Blanc pollen is released into the wild?

Fortunately, compared to other crops, it doesn't matter as much. Almost all grapevines today are grafted. The Manroach Blanc vines could hopefully be contained to a small area. Hopefully.

Still, as Tolmach said, "If consumers have the choice, they're not gonna buy Frankenwine."

That's because consumers have greater perspective than Wine Spectator. Ripeness isn't everything, though to the Spectator, it's the only thing.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Larry Brooks said...

While I'm quite happy with what generations of selection have given me in the way of scion wood. I'd like to point out that it wasn't random chance that gave us the rootstocks that saved wine from Phylloxera. It was work by plant scientists. GMO is simply plant science at work, and all the science points to its complete safety. It's curious to me that liberals (I am one by the way) in general accept the science behind global warming and climate change, but for some reason do not accept the science behind GMO, which all scientists agree is safe.

W. Blake Gray said...

I can answer that, Larry. Accepting that climate change is happening is far different from accepting GMO products at the dinner table. I don't want either one, but there's only one that I can individually avoid.

Robert said...

I think Wine Spectator is jumping the shark a bit here. You are trying to solve a problem you don't have. Using genes from other species to fight diseases sounds good on paper and it has been done with other plants but there are no long term studies tracking the effect on human consumption. There are some who argue that there might be a relationship of GMO wheat and the increase of gluten intolerance or GMO corn and the increase of obesity due to the use HFCS in just about everything. Don't get me started on GMO tomatoes.
How about we use some common sense approaches to grapes and wine and not re-engineer every genome when something does not please us (length of shelf-life, etc.) or anticipating diseases. It's like using a suspension bridge on a broken broom stick when ordinary duct tape will do.

Unknown said...

Mr Gray,

I'm an avid reader of your blog. You usually do much better than this post. There is a broad scientific consensus that GMO's are not harmful to human health or to the environment. Could the science be wrong? Of course. It is relatively new technology and there are many unknowns. So foods made from genetically-modified crops should be labeled and carefully studied. But a blanket dismissal by creating associations with cockroaches and the like is intellectually dishonest and ignores the current state of the science.

As to the comparison with the tea party. Please. You say defenders of genetic modification assert "the rights of the individual outweigh the concerns of society. And screw our descendants: the Earth is ours to exploit." In fact the science behind GMO's is an attempt to develop a sustainable food supply that can feed a growing population. The use of GM to fight Pierce's disease is only a very small part of this. There is a debate to be had about the most effective methods of achieving sustainability. But the aim of the research is not the absolute assertion of property rights. In fact, what seems much closer to the tea party ideology is the refusal to consider the science.

This is emphatically not to defend the business practices of Monsanto, especially in the third world. That is another matter. Liberals should be concerned about corporate predation. But blanket condemnations of GMO technology are unwarrented and threaten one important method of feeding the planet (as well as protecting the viability of wine regions.)

Patrick Frank said...

The argument that we need GMO wine to "prevent" future diseases reminds me of the argument that cattle growers use for routinely giving their animals anti-biotics when they don't need them. The latter is harmful to the environment long-term; the former is at least highly questionable.

W. Blake Gray said...

Dwight: Thanks for your kind words and measured criticism.

Perhaps I wasn't clear that I am not against any and all GMO research, even though I recently read "Oryx and Crake."

I'm just talking today about GMO grapevines. When you start talking about world famine, or fighting human genetic disorders, or things like that, you bring in other issues that don't apply here.

Re property rights: I get into that from the idea of how one responds to planting something on your land that potentially affects everyone around it.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and hopefully I'll write something you like more soon.

kschlach said...

Talk about a hyperbolic post that misrepresents the actual article. You (almost) got one thing right: "IF a modern-day phylloxera emerged AND nothing else worked -- NOTHING else worked -- than [sic] GMOs could be an option."

Frank wasn't saying we should start putting random DNA into grape vines. All he was doing was raising a salient topic that graces the discourse of all food industries. I expect better... but I get what I pay for... ;)

Andy said... must really hate the Wine Spectator, its the only thing that explains your continual and mostly unjustifed / unwarranted attacks on them (including this one). Anyone who read the blog can cearly determine that the title of your blog post (and its tone) in no way reflects what Mitch's post was trying to say (I would compare his post to what Dwight had to say in his reponse to your post)
You otherwise tend to be very measured and reasoned in your posts....why does WS inspire such special vitriol in you?

Unknown said...

"Re property rights: I get into that from the idea of how one responds to planting something on your land that potentially affects everyone around it."

Good point. But Pierce's disease is not something individual property owners can control. It requires a collective response. So presumably if genetic modification is deployed to fight it, the deployment would presumably be a collective endeavor.

At least that would be the rational approach. Of course, we are talking about human beings here.

W. Blake Gray said...

Andrew: I don't hate Wine Spectator. If I didn't respect the magazine at all, I wouldn't write about it. There are plenty of publications that are worse.

That's what makes it disappointing when Spectator takes an extreme position like this. Wine Spectator does basic journalism -- fact-finding and fact-checking -- as well as anyone in wine. It has a great stable of journalists and a high standard for features.

But, like the Wall Street Journal, sometimes Wine Spectator's editorial focus is too extremist. That's true of its reviews, which reward ripeness to the exclusion of almost everything else. And that's true here.

Here's the thing about Mitch Frank's post: he spends the whole time trying to sound reasonable. He's a good writer. But just because you SOUND reasonable doesn't mean you are reasonable. Not on this issue.

Why do we need GMO grapevines? To fight some mythical unstoppable future pest? OK, great, if wine is being wiped out worldwide, we'll look at it. You'd do that for a lot of crises -- consider positions previously out of bounds.

But we have no such crisis. We have better understanding of viticulture than at any other time. We also have a better understanding of ecosystems.

AND we have a history of making mistakes with longterm consequences when we mess with nature's controls. Consider the cane toad.

Dan Fishman said...

Mr. Gray accusing the wine spectator of being extremist in the context of this silly rant is pretty awesome.

If GMO vines could reduce the use of copper, Roundup, and other harmful chemicals in the vineyard, that would be a great thing on its own, whether or not their was a "crisis" that needed response. (and by the way, these things take time, its not like they could just whip up some GMO vines in a few months in response to a problem).

"Unfortunately, like the mob in Alsace, some opponents don't want to have the discussion or allow research. They generally speak loudest. Polls show that the public knows little about GMOs, and they're being bombarded with plenty of opinions and few facts."



Carroll said...

Like nuclear power, GMO technology appears to be a good idea until you lose control over it. But the inherent problem with either is that once control is lost, there's no way of ever getting it back. If you don't think so, take a look at the Fukushima disaster occurring in Japan. The bottom line is that any technology with the inherent capability of leading to permanent and irreversible environmental changes that threaten human existence must be avoided at any and all cost.

W. Blake Gray said...

Dan: Why not ask consumers whether they would rather have copper sulfate sprayed in the vineyard, or GMO vines?

My guess is that people will either care about both or neither, and that people who care about both would prefer the copper sulfate.

jo6pac said...

I'll take a pass on gmo wine thank you. I live in the Calif. Central Valley near Tracy and have gmo food growing all around me and I eat out my garden and grass feed beef with no additives thank you.

I listen to the farmer complain that the insects and weeds are changing fast than they can change the seed. The dairy people complain that the gmo corn doesn't break down in the stomach cows and the food value of it is about half of what none gmo is.

The vineyards that do take this path will owe their soul to who ever makes this for them. You will not be able to change the vine at all. There won't be rootstock as you know it. Think Monsanto.

Larry Brooks not all science says it's safe that why it's not allowed in Europe and many other countries around the world.

Thanks WBG for bring this up.

Anonymous said...

Boy, must have been a slow day at the old typewriter for you. I think you missed the point of the WS post. It was simply a "what if" question. I think the whole point of the post was to generate a reader conversation about the what if scenario, not come out and say that they are supporting GMO vines.

W. Blake Gray said...

Let's see: if I write a post to "generate reader conversation," it's a slow day. What is it when Wine Spectator does it?

Dan Fishman said...

"Dan: Why not ask consumers whether they would rather have copper sulfate sprayed in the vineyard, or GMO vines?"

Why not ask Jenny McCarthy if you should have your children vaccinated?


Unknown said...

French Directorate Gen. of the European Union in 2001, French Academy of Sciences in 2002, French Academy of Medicine in 2002, Royal Society UK in 2003, British Medical Association in 2004, Union of German Academies of Science and Humanities in 2004, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2000, Dir. Gen. of World Health Organization in 2002, International Council for Science ICS in 2003, and The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN in 2004, all are on record saying "no new risk to human health or the environment from GE crops approved by regulators so far". There have been major studies done looking for evidence of problems, and none have appeared. The lack of evidence is evidence of something. And remember, we cannot prove a negative. We must have some data showing a problem.

W. Blake Gray said...

The anti-vaccine argument is exactly opposite to this one. People who are arguing against vaccines are asserting their individual right to threaten the rest of the human population.

Dan, I know you've come here to insult me, but if you want to prove your intelligence, you'll have to do better than name-calling.

W. Blake Gray said...

John: That's great! I'm glad the GMO soybeans Monsanto forced on us all aren't killing us.

Is it possibly too soon to declare blanket clearance for all GMO crops based on that research?

How long did it take other examples in human history of negative effects of tinkering with the ecosystem to present themselves?

What's at stake if we're wrong?

And lastly, are we solving a problem, or are we trying to create some better supervine? If the latter, do we really need it?

Wine grapevines are the apex of agriculture, with the possible exception of saffron. Every little tweak matters.

Dan Fishman said...

"Dan, I know you've come here to insult me, but if you want to prove your intelligence, you'll have to do better than name-calling."

How exactly have I insulted you, or called you a name? The analogy is that anti-vaxers believe what they believe despite the scientific evidence. Just as you are doing in the comment right above this one.


Dan Fishman said...

"Dan, I know you've come here to insult me, but if you want to prove your intelligence, you'll have to do better than name-calling."

How exactly have I insulted you, or called you a name? The analogy is that anti-vaxers believe what they believe despite the scientific evidence. Just as you are doing in the comment right above this one.


Unknown said...

Blake, try to see the future. The future of farming will be GMO plants. They will require little or no pesticides or fertilizers, which will have enormous benefits to human health and the environment. You should be encouraging the public toward this goal, instead of fear mongering about cockroaches. I know you only "trust" organic farmers, but I think your trust is misplaced by your belief in organic farming marketing lies: Do you know organic farmers are heavily dependent on synthetic nitrogen because of their use of manure from animals whose feed is often GMO and that feed was produced using synthetic fertilizers? Yes- organic farmers use nitrogen fixing cover crops, like I do, but its not enough, so we all use compost that is basically synthetic nitrogen from GMO crops and involve high density and confining conditions in order to collect the manure. Do you know organic farmers are some of the largest users of pesticides in California? And those pesticides can be far more damaging to fish, birds and invertebrates than synthetic pesticides that can only kill specific insects at a specific life stage leaving beneficial insects untouched? Organic pesticides kill pests and beneficials. Do you know organic farmer's heavy use of tillage creates large amounts of greenhouse gases from breaking open the soil? The soil is where 60% of agricultural GH gases come from and the use of Roundup to kill weeds and thus reduce tillage is a huge environmental benefit. We have an opportunity to transform agriculture and save the planet by CAREFULLY using GMOs. Read "Tomorrow's Table" by Raoul Adamchak who teaches organic farming at UC Davis and read Nuffield's Ethics review at

Unknown said...

Hi Dan,
I would enjoy meeting you. John at Hilliard Bruce Vineyards in Lompoc CA.

W. Blake Gray said...

The Gray Report: Bringing People Together Through Their Mutual Opposition To The Author.

W. Blake Gray said...

John: This issue of trust isn't limited to me; I just had a very interesting conversation about it yesterday as it applies to winemakers.

I trust the farmers at my local farmers' market when they say "low spray," even though I have no evidence. So why don't I trust winegrowers who say, "We do the minimum?" Well, sometimes I do, when I meet them in person and they seem sincere. But from afar, EVERYBODY says it, and I don't know who to believe, so I can either believe everyone or doubt everyone. And I'm a journalist at heart.

Re the future being GMO plants: Maybe, but then you're talking past my lifetime and hopefully the lifetime of the next generation. I do believe in climate change, and one use for GMO agriculture is that natural selection might not keep up with rapid changes to ecosystems. We might need GMO food plants to survive. I won't dispute that.

As much as I love wine, quickening grapevines' response to ecosystem change is not on the same order of importance.

The future of power generation may be nuclear energy. Do you want nuclear power in your backyard? Is it irrational to oppose it?

Unknown said...

First of all, i really enjoy your blog.

I think that people forget that science does its best work when it tries to help nature not when it tries to cheat it.

On the article by Mitch Frank the part were i had an issue with it was trying to compare simple agriculture with GMO's. That's plain stupid. Thats like encourging human growth hormone use (without need)because it's just like vitamins.

Again, one helps and guides nature while the other tries to cheat it.


jo6pac said...

GMO Corn Planting for the Local Grocery Stores

1. The ground is fumigated then irrigated.
2. Seed Planted
3. Sprinklers for 72 hours, then 2 days later 12 hours of sprinklers
4. Then fumigated again and sprayed for bugs.
5. Watered by Trenches
6. Sprayed by Tractor every 10 days until 3 feet tall.
7. Then sprayed every 3 days by Crop Duster until picked.

This doesn’t sound like less chemical use to me and this is the normal practice for this corn in the Central Valley of Calif. There is no such thing as better living with chemicals. My weed spray is a 50/50 mix of clove & cinnamon oil and bug spray is Orange Guard. There are plenty of organic supplies out on the market place.

Thanks JPV and WBG

Jo Diaz said...

Only people with a vest interest would advocate for this one... Same people advocated on my blog when I wrote about it, Blake. (They see the future in $$)

Jo Diaz said...