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[whitespace] Bob Cannard One biodynamic farmer: Organic gardener and food activist Bob Cannard.

Glow with the flow

GMO grapes: the 'new frontier' for pesticide foes?

By Tara Treasurefield

WOULD YOU LIKE the wine you drink to glow in the dark? Then go to Florida, where genetic engineers have inserted a fluorescent jellyfish gene into grape plants. The gene lights up the plants and allows researchers to see the results of their experiments. The real purpose of the research is to develop a cure for Pierce's disease, a vine-withering disease spread by the glassy-winged sharpshooter and other insects and by diseased rootstock. Researchers plan to remove the jellyfish marker gene from the grape plants before they're marketed. But if some enterprising soul thinks that consumers will buy fluorescent wine, before long it could be available in stores near you.

Novel? Yes. Good idea? Probably not, says biodynamic farmer Bob Cannard Jr., who views genetic engineering as a greater threat than pesticides. Organic agriculture is gaining ground (literally) at the rate of 20 percent per year.

"If the genetic codes are not scrambled by the current biotech thrust," says Cannard, who spearheaded an unsuccessful bid last year to create an initiative on the state ballot that would have required consumer labeling of all genetically modified foods, "within a 20-year period of time we could easily see a 50 percent reduction in agricultural toxins used."

But the genetic engineering train left the station long ago, and leaders in the wine industry are squarely on board. They view genetic engineering as the "final solution" to Pierce's disease, which limits potential profits in California, Florida, Texas, and other southeastern states, and in Mexico and Central America.

A lot of money is at stake--and that's always a strong incentive to act first, and ask questions never.

Dennis Gray is a professor and developmental biologist at the University of Florida. He has been searching for a cure to Pierce's disease since 1984, when he joined forces with researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Gray says that if Florida could produce more popular varieties of wine, there would be a strong local market for it.

"In the United States, Florida is the third biggest consumer of wine, but we have a tiny grape industry because of diseases. Pierce's disease absolutely prevents us from growing cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and other varieties."

Gray's research involves inserting a modified silkworm larvae gene into grape plants. In laboratory conditions, the modified gene kills the Pierce's disease bacterium. Problem is, it may kill beneficial bacteria, too, warns Doreen Stabinsky of Greenpeace.

"I'd also be concerned about what other types of organisms it can affect, including humans," she says. "The silkworm protein is closely related to the protein found in bee venom, which we know causes severe allergic reactions in some humans."

Stabinsky will be relieved to learn that genetically modified grape plants may not be available for another 10 years. There's still time to warn connoisseurs of the possible hazards of wine laced with silkworm genes. And Pierce's disease aside, Gray says, "We know that many popular wine grapes do not produce color-stable, quality wines in our climate, probably due to hot nighttime temperatures. Also, there may be problems with uneven ripening of fruit and fungal diseases over time."

Could it be that cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay don't belong in hot, humid climates?

In any case, Florida vintners and growers support Gray's work, and expect to have no problem marketing wine made from genetically engineered grape plants. But wine interests in California do expect problems. The California wine industry relies heavily on the European market, and Europeans have a well-deserved reputation for burning genetically engineered crops.

"If you were to ask growers in Napa and Sonoma [counties] and on up and down the coast if they were willing to write off the European continent as a customer, they'd say no," says Jay Van Rein of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

But that doesn't mean the CDFA has given up on genetic engineering. John J. Peloquin, assistant research entomologist at the University of California-Riverside, is working on a project funded by the CDFA. Peloquin and other researchers plan to dose sharpshooters with an "antibiotic" in the form of genetically engineered bacteria that interrupt or kill the Pierce's disease bacterium. Researchers are testing methods of getting the engineered bacteria into the sharpshooters.

One possible scenario, unconfirmed by researchers, is that regulators in areas infested with the sharpshooter could apply the engineered bacteria to plants that the sharpshooter feeds on.

STABINSKY wants to know how researchers will prevent engineered bacteria from damaging or killing beneficial bacteria, such as those that are essential to breaking down the soil. Peloquin says, "The technology exists that theoretically these substances may be made to be very specific and affect only" the Pierce's disease bacterium, "through the power of molecular biology, immunology, combinatorial chemistry, and rational 'drug' design."

Cloning the Buddha author Richard Heinberg is skeptical. "Before the bacteria are actually released, I think it would be essential to have extensive studies conducted by ecologists, not molecular biologists," he says.

"My guess is that there are other solutions that are less exotic, more mundane, but that in the long run are less risky and perhaps less costly as well.

For these, we need a thorough knowledge of the ecology, not just the genetics, of the sharpshooter and the Pierce's disease bacterium."

But Peloquin and Gray are convinced that they're taking every possible precaution and that their work won't harm the ecosystem. Gray, who describes himself as a public servant, says, "I'm here to help the people. If I were working on something I thought was dangerous, I wouldn't do it.

"I know why people get scared," he says, then adding in reference to GMO activists, "There are nuts out there burning things."

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From the September 6-12, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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