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Grapes, genetics and the environment

14 September 2008 No Comment

By: Linsay Rousseau Burnett

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service website, “Organic faming has become one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture.”

As California continues to dominate the organic industry, its third largest agricultural crop, grapes, struggles to keep up. Some grape growers and scientists in Sonoma County feel there needs to be a nationwide dialogue about the use of genetic engineering to produce disease resistant plants and eliminate the need for pesticides.

Of the more than 1,800 grape growers in Sonoma, the Medlock Ames vineyard is one of the few that is 100 percent organic. Owner Ames Morison, 38, utilizes solar power for energy, uses biodiesel to power his tractors and a variety of other natural practices in his grape cultivation and wine production.

Eliminating the use of chemicals was one of the primary motivations behind the construction of his vineyard. “I didn’t want to be exposed to chemicals,” said Morison, “I’m in the fields every day and so are a lot of families and I don’t want them to get sick.”

Morison admitted that going organic has not been easy. Weeds have been his biggest battle. “Since we don’t use pesticides, most of the weed control is done by hand. This is more expensive because I have to pay for more labor,” said Morison. He recently purchased a small heard of sheep in the hopes that, as they wander through the vineyard, they will eat the weeds and subsequently fertilize the plants.

Biologists Pam and Glen Gunsalus, 53 and 52, moved to Sonoma to “grow high-end pinot [grigio] and to have fun,” said Pam Gunsalus. For them, organic growing is not practical. “There’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through to become organic,” said Glen Gunsalus, “There are more growing problems so it’s a lot more expensive.” Along with the increased cost of protecting the vineyards from weeds and disease, growers must also pay a fee for the organic label and for annual state inspections.

While they have not eliminated the use of pesticides, the Gunsaluses use “softer materials and take care of the land and water,” said Glen Gunsalus. This practice is considered sustainable growing. According to Laura Brier, 45, an entomologist and integrative pest management specialist, “You can still be good stewards of the land through sustainable practices.”

For many organic and sustainable growers, the idea of being able to grow grapes without having to worry about weeds and disease is appealing. Since the mid 19th century, grape growers have been practicing root grafting. Viticulturist Lucie Morton, 57, said that, “Growers started root grafting in response to diseased grape plants that were shipped from the U.S. to Europe and wiped out almost all of their vineyards.”

After discovering that the disease only affected the roots of the European strains, growers took the resistant rootstalk from an American plant and grafted their own vines on top. “This isn’t natural, but it’s also not environmentally harmful,” said Morison, “Every vineyard in the world now grows this way.” Starting in the 20th Century, viticulturists began creating new breeds of plants that can withstand environmental conditions as well as “maintain a consistency of taste and color in their yield,” said Ames Morison.

There are advances being made in the field of genetics that are creating disease resistant plants said Morton, adding, “This could be a very elegant solution that’s not a threat to the environment and gets us away from using insecticides.” This is a solution Glen Gunsalus said he would not be opposed to, “I would use genetics tomorrow if it worked and was proven to be safe. If you can change something so it can grow without disease and without using chemicals that’s good.”

Before any widespread application of genetics can be implemented, advances not only need to be made in the laboratory, but public opinion also needs to shift, especially in California. As Brier said, “There’s a general ignorance and apprehension in the public about GMOs [genetically modified organisms]. They’ve seen some of the bad consequences from the past and are now completely opposed to all of it. We just need to go slow until it’s proven safe.”

Morton said that politics is what is getting in the way of science. “Opposing genetics isn’t the answer. We need to stop poisoning the plant…Principles are what cause wars so people need to put principles aside and have a rational discussion.”

While it may be slow moving, the need to push forward a comprehensive dialogue is something these growers and scientists agreed upon. “There should be a sustainability component to growing but we also have to be able to survive,” said Glen Gunsalus, “We need to use what we have to make informed decisions. There’s no one answer.”

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