Why Technology Is Not the Main Issue in GMO for Grapevines

I have despaired for years of seeing a reasoned discussion of the implications of genetic engineering for grapevines or other plants. Politicization has created an atmosphere in which it becomes impossible to discuss on a rational basis the advantages and disadvantages of the technique. Of course there are dangers, but they have to be weighed against potential gains.

This was brought back to mind by an essay by Hrisha Poola, the winner of the wine writing competition on jancisrobinson.com. In his essay (available at https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/wine-gets-crispr) he focuses on the potential use of the new CRISPR technique for GMO of plants and in particular grapevines. This is a valuable exercise, but I can’t help feeling that in focusing so closely on CRISPR, this somewhat muddles the wood and the trees.

Genetic engineering of the grapevine has been possible for a couple of decades, as indeed it has for other crops. In fact, the grapevine is an outlier in the lack of GMO. CRISPR is a technical development, an important one, that makes it much easier to do genetic engineering, and which offers much greater precision than before. It’s significant enough that the authors are candidates for a Nobel prize, but it does not represent the same paradigm shift as the introduction of gene editing itself.

Concentrating on the technique, and giving the impression that it is CRISPR that has actually created the possibility for genetic engineering, distracts us from the main issues. We should be discussing the implications of loss of diversity by exacerbating the trend to use clones, that is, to risk allowing a few genetically engineered clones to replace existing genetic variation. In that context, the interesting question about CRISPR is whether, by making the process easier, CRISPR might make it possible to introduce the same change into a variety of base material and thus reduce the effect of loss of diversity.

We should be discussing how to weigh up the pros and cons of the use of sulfur and copper, necessary for organic viticulture, against the possibility of eliminating them by genetic engineering of the plant. We should be discussing whether it’s better to use steroid sprays to control fungal diseases as opposed to changing the genetic constitution of the plant. And, of course, all this should be within the context of explaining how using genetic engineering relates to conventional plant breeding, and what are its advantages and disadvantages relative to cross-breeding.

It is perhaps significant that Hrisha’s essay opens with a quotation from Mukherjee, who has had a great success with his book (The Gene: An Intimate History), but which is skeptically regarded in the scientific community for its over simplification of epigenetics. It is a sad truth that those who have the public ear tend to trivialize or politicize the issues. I don’t want to cavil, I would love to see an informed debate on the topic, but discussions need to be based not on technique and technology, but on the principles of what is involved.

Unfortunately we live in a culture where the media do not take science seriously, or perhaps to be more accurate, where they do not regard it as a topic that should be treated seriously. I remember years ago when we published a significant paper on the common cold virus in Cell, it made the concluding item on the evening news in the form of a report showing clips from Charlie Chaplin movies where the actor was ridden with cold. Very funny, but not going to help public understanding of science. Sadly, nothing has changed in thirty years. Only last week, a report that alcohol might cause cancer by leading to the production of acetaldehyde was trivialized on Reuters by video clips of drunken revelry. It’s never going to be possible to have serious debate against that background, so kudos to Jancis for publishing a serious essay: but let’s move on from the technology to the philosophy. Now that would be something!