What follows is an excerpt from an article Andreaa Gori wrote on the address Professor Attilio Scienza made at a July 12 conference held at Milan’s Expo 2015 world’s fair and published by Intravino. ‘’European grape vines have 500 genes that can protect them from disease but which are not activated because we are used to not using them. Activating these gene by intervening on how they work does not mean creating a genetically modified organism (GMO) but making the plants stronger and more resistant. We have the technology to do this but not the funds and yet by selling this technology we could finance it. Another possible research project is intervening on the rootstocks which over the years have not evolved genetically… but all the polemics over GMOs has not helped us. It is essential we carry out genome editing on vines in order to create varieties that are more resistant to disease and we must do this before the other countries do. Looking at the math, with ‘only’ two euro cents from the sale of every bottle of Italian wine we could raise the funds needed for this research (around 50 million euros)”.
The quotation marks refer to Gori’s article in which he probably summarized what Professor Scienza said and which captured the attention of many of those present. It is a complex argument but one which is pivotal to the future of winegrowing in Italy, also in consideration of the effects of climate change and the competition, in my mind unfair, from New World producers which are using practices, like irrigating desert areas, in order to grow grapes in unsuitable places.
The question is of the utmost importance because it involve the plant’s genes. It does not involve modifying the DNA, as GMOs do, but only to ‘wake up’ certain genes. In a way it is a kind of ‘light’ GMO approach based on reactivating dormant genes but it does, in fact, involve gene intervention. In regard to the rootstock, the argument involves selecting clones, something which is more common and considered more acceptable.
This said and done, moving ahead as Professor Scienza suggests without an adequate debate, even an ethical one, for me would not be opportune. We need to fully understand what this kind of intervention is and what effects it will have on bio-diversity, what will be lost. For sure, flavescence dorée and downy mildew are on the constantly on the rise and Italy runs the risk of losing important and increasing market shares because of them, especially in Europe, and so it would be useful to find ways to combat them. What I wonder is whether the only way to do this is through ‘light’ GMOs. I am not qualified to say whether it is or isn’t but I do suspect that something risks being sacrificed on the altar of usefulness.