by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
Of all the people I’ve met in the wine business, Jo Diaz has to be one fo my favorites. But I don’t agree with her on everything, and genetically modified food is certainly one of them. For her view, go to her post at: “GMO Wine, not in my time….” Which can be found at http://www.wine-blog.org/index.php/2013/11/15/gmo-wine-time/
It’s not that I think GMO is always ok, because that’s certainly not the case. Like any new technology, it needs to be vetted and not released, willy-nilly, upon the world.
But like many new technologies, it has the potential for much good. My outlook on technology is, in general, positive. The fact that we aren’t all running around in furs with clubs is due to technology. In fact, furs and clubs were at one time the latest technological advances. Before that, it was our bare skin and nails.
Every technological advance is opposed by those who think that if God intended us to fly, he’d have given us wings. I don’t think there are very people these days who won’t get on an airplane because of that. I think in 50 years, the whole GMO controversy will be viewed in much the same way.
I’m reading “Risk: A Practical Guide For Deciding What’s Really Dangerous In The World Around You.” If there’s one point that stands out from the book it’s that it’s no simple problem to decide how much risk you’re will to take with new, untried, things. You can take the point of view that you really shouldn’t put a new technology into practice until you’ve thoroughly tested it in every conceivable way. In fact, many people subscribe to that view.
But if there’s risk in moving forward (as there no doubt is), there is risk in standing still. There is no questioning that many technologies have greatly improved our lives. Modern living would be impossible without them.
If you hold off on releasing a new vaccine out of fear that it has some as yet unknown side effect, you may be saving thousands or millions of people from those adverse side effects. But you could be doing the exact opposite as well, subjecting people to the disease that the vaccine would prevent. Obviously, there is no “one size fits all” solution to this. The Devil is in the details.
GMO is for some reason a particularly contentious new technology. While I have no doubt that Monsanto is motivated primarily by prospective profits rather than the good of mankind, that doesn’t make it a whole lot different than pretty much every corporation out there. While Monsanto isn’t lily white, it’s not the reincarnation of Satan either. The benefits of GMO foods far outweigh the downside, which no doubt exist. The question isn’t whether it’s without risk, but whether, on balance, the benefits outweigh the risks.
Turning to wine grapes, there is a basic problem in growing them. The wines that we most prize come from grapes that originate in the Caucasus, and from there spread over the Old World. Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and pretty much all the wines that we routinely drink have their ancestry in the Old World. There are some New World wine grapes, as well as some hybrids between Old and New World grapes, that are used. I’ve tasted a number of them, and while they aren’t all bad (though many are), they don’t compare to the Old World grapes.
Unfortunately, the Old World grapes evolved in, well, the Old World, where New World pests didn’t exist. So they are defenseless against the maladies that New World pests have on offer. Phylloxera is the primary example. It was “defeated” by the use of New World grape varieties as rootstock. But other problems remain.
We deal with those problems primarily with chemicals. We spray this that and the other thing to keep these pestilences at bay. And they more or less work. But they come with a cost, and potential environmental problems.
The “Holy Grail” of grape genetic modification is to insert into the Old World grape genomes the genes that give New World grapes resistance to these various pests.
I am not a plant geneticist, and won’t presume to know what testing should go into something like that to ensure a reasonable level of safety. But, in theory, the idea of putting a New World gene into an Old World genome doesn’t get me all hot and bothered. And the thought of planting the vine and never having to spray it with the sundry chemicals we use is, to say the least, very attractive.
People talk about “Frankenwines” with a sneer. But I have little doubt that a hundred years from now that’s what we’ll all be drinking.