Wine World In Ferment

10 Oct 2003

How complicated things are nowadays. I am sure a lot of people share my wish that you could still be fairly carefree about things and not be forced to delve into origins and become an expert in chemistry, biology or whatever. From mineral water to shoes, consumers need to have so much knowledge and information that it is hard not to get a little disheartened … It is not surprising that when we come across a ‘straightforward’ business during our wanderings, it’s like finding nirvana: it is not their housing conditions, average rate of literacy or life expectancy at birth that is of significance.

What attracts us is that their lives are not constantly stimulated by thousands of vaché eletric (literally ‘electric cowherds’ in Piedmontese dialect, hence electric fences) which we in our developed societies are continually running up against. The latest ‘concern’ comes from Canada. Not long ago I received an email from a friend and Slow Food member: ‘At the International Enology Symposium held in Bordeaux last June, Prof. Van Vuuren of the University of British Columbia (a Canadian Province which perhaps produces as much wine as the tiny municipality of Castagnito near Bra) announced he had applied for authorization in various countries to commercialize the selected yeast ML 01. This is a genetically modified organism able to cause malolactic fermentation to occur for longer and earlier than alcoholic fermentation’.

And we laugh about it! But we need to look more closely and again be concerned about wine, which we think we have always known and understood. While it is true that British Columbia does not produce a large quantity of wine, we should realize that Canada hosts the head office of a multinational company called Lallemand, which is today the largest producer of industrial yeasts in the world. At present yeasts are simple microorganisms and experimental transgenic work on these microorganisms began at least 20 years ago.

They are very easy to produce and practically impossible to detect if nothing is indicated on the label. Yeasts have high variability and change continuously: the customary task of producers of industrial yeasts is to isolate the new families they create and—if they are of interest—multiply and commercialize them. There aren’t any registered genomes for yeasts (unlike for maize or soy), because there are thousands of them and they change continuously. Although Professor Van Vuuren’s announcement now appears to make our lives even more complicated, it does have the great merit of finally taking the lid off an issue that has been quietly simmering away for a few years, trying its best not to attract anyone’s attention.

Creating and commercializing a transgenic yeast (ie, inserting a bacterial gene into yeast DNA) means many things. Above all, it means completely ignoring the much-discussed precautionary principle: yeasts may well be simple organisms, but they cause complex transformations; they are not only involved in making wine but also in bread, cheese and medicines.

How will we know about and be able to control products made in processes involving these new genetically-modified yeasts? There is a total lack of respect for consumers. A wine made using a GM yeast will have no detectable GMOs because the particles of yeast are removed by decanting and filtration. It will therefore not be possible to block imports or sale of these products —never mind the thousands of people in Europe and elsewhere who signed the Slow Food Manifesto and similar declarations from other organizations stating they do not wish to drink transgenic wine. Don’t we want to at least give them the right to decide? And finally, what do you know, there is a problem of contamination. The producers of yeast know perfectly well that a yeast is never 100% pure, because it is produced in fermenters which are emptied and then charged with the next batch. A certain small quantity of yeast A will be present in yeast B. But if yeast A was transgenic and yeast B is not, we will gradually find we are not sure about anything. And that is why, as stated earlier, one feels disheartened. The only ray of hope I can see on the horizon comes from biodynamic agriculture. There they are removing all the electric fences.

First published in La Stampa on August 31 2003

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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