GM Grapes Raise Hopes for Midwest Wine Industry

Published January 1, 2009

One of the most effective, widely used herbicides in the United States—known as 2, 4-D—has a serious drawback: It devastates grapes. That makes it very difficult to raise grapes in the Midwest, because 2, 4-D is widely used on popular staple food crops including corn and wheat, and it can harm grapes up to two miles away from its point of application.

Scientists, however, report a minor genetic modification of Midwestern grapes can make them resistant to 2, 4-D.

Gene Successfully Transferred

The genetically modified grape, created by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is called Improved Chancellor. In the aftermath of an accidental spill of the pesticide, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found a soil bacterium with a gene that allows it to break down 2, 4-D. Building on this finding, in 2002 Robert Skirvin, a plant biologist at the University of Illinois, secured permission to use the gene and transfer it into the Chancellor grape.

Skirvin and his colleagues used standard genetic engineering techniques to do so. After they identified the bacterium cells that carried the desirable gene, the long, delicate process of regenerating the cells into plants began. After the transgenic grape cells developed into seed-like roots, these were grown until they were large enough to be transferred to a controlled-access greenhouse.

Of the eight Chancellor grape plants eventually developed through this process, three retained the herbicide resistance gene. Cuttings from the Improved Chancellor plants, along with a non-modified Chancellor used as a control, were sprayed with relatively high amounts of 2, 4-D. The modified Chancellor grapes proved resistant to the herbicide.

In a University of Illinois press release, Skirvin said, “It was quite an accomplishment to get the gene into the plant. The grape could help salvage the wine and grape industry in the Midwest.”

More Work Ahead

Kansas grape farmer Rebecca Storey agrees.

“A grape resistant to 2, 4-D would be a huge plus to our industry, … a gift to our industry,” Storey noted in the press release.

Much testing remains to be done before Improved Chancellor reaches the marketplace. The new plant variety will have to be tested to ensure it does not produce or contain any poisonous compounds that could get into the grape or the wine. Once the grapes have been found safe to eat, the research team will have to work with a grape grower to produce a wine using Improved Chancellor.

Objections Likely

Even then, environmental activists are likely to mount legal challenges to the distribution of the grapes, further delaying their introduction into the marketplace, experts say.

Dennis Avery, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, noted, “Environmental activists have successfully prevented test plantings of a genetically modified potato variety that is resistant to the potato late-blight that caused the massive potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s and that remains a threat to potato growers worldwide. Potatoes produce more food per acre than any other crop, and each year this blight results in millions of tons of potatoes lost.”

Even such staple crops as potatoes, critical to solving hunger worldwide, are not immune to the “irrational fears and harmful political maneuverings of environmentalists,” Avery said. He predicted Improved Chancellor grapes might face similar objections as researchers attempt to move them from the laboratory and greenhouse to farmers’ fields.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.