Some thoughts on genetically modified vines

There has been a lot of lobbying on the subject of gentically modified (GM) vines recently, and I thought I’d chip in my tuppence-worth for wine-pages. Some people believe that the crossing of different species does not occur in nature, or, as one fellow member of the Circle of Wine Writers put it recently, when it does, Mother Nature defends herself by ensuring that these excesses are not able to naturally reproduce themselves”. His mention of infertility was a reference to mules, but this was a bad example and he was, of course, talking like an ass.

xHybridisation is not only a natural occurrence, it also represents a significant evolutionary event. Indeed, natural hybridisation sometimes produces novel genotypes or spawns new lineages. Until recently, hybridisation between species was considered a rare occurrence, but some scientist now estimate that around 10% of all animal species and 20% of plant species, hybridise in nature.

The good old Douglas Fir is a natural hybrid of pines and firs. Another not so well known example is the Canaan Fir, which is a natural hybrid between Balsam & Fraser Fir.In the garden, the Meyer lemon is a natural hybrid between the true lemon and sweet orange. Some scientists believe rape seed (the original, non-genetically modified versions) to be a natural hybrid between a cauliflower and a turnip.

There are many grasses and flowers that are natural hybrids too, and examples occur in the animal world; in fact, there are quite a few. The red wolf, which is a natural hybrid between the coyote and the grey wolf, is a better example than the mule, since its offspring are fully fertile.

xReturning to GM plants in general, and GM vines (or rootstock) in particular, I think that we do need to be careful of course, but if similar results were achieved by Victorian horticulturists – albeit much more slowly – I cannot for the life of me understand what the fear is all about. However, I confess that inserting (for example) a fish gene in a plant does make me feel queasy, but I cannot explain this reaction in any rational way. Everything supposedly originated from the same single-cell life-forms: in the primordial soup they replicated themselves, sometimes a mistake was made in copying, and a new species of self generating molecules was created. Given eons of time, the ultimate result was all life forms on earth, including man. But let’s face it; it’s pretty damn hard to get plants and animals to exchange genes these days! Maybe that is sufficient explanation for my unease, but inserting the gene that protects one species of vine from Phylloxera into all Vitis vinifera? No, that doesn’t bother me at all.Sure, I want those who do the work to be certain that they have extrapolated everything out, but I also want those who believe in green solutions to extrapolate everything fully too.

Let’s take a common “green” solution of introducing natural predators to control pest populations. This is messing with individual ecosystems, and although it is possible to build mathematical models, there are too many variables involved to imagine, let alone chart, every effect one action could have on environmental situations throughout the world. We might just be nibbling away at the Chaos Theory here, but the point is that if we mess with one ecosystem, we could cause irreparable harm to god-knows what in the future. We know this from the damage caused by the industrial revolution in the 19th century, never mind the all-too-obvious pollutions pouring forth today.

Protecting the environment is supposed to be the prime consideration of those who oppose genetically modified vines, but it strikes me that of all the proposed solutions to viticultural problems, the only difference between the scientists and the radical greens, is that there is some form of monitoring and control of the former.