Are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) used in wine making?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not allowed in organic or biodynamic wine production. But in conventional winemaking GMOs can play a role. A GMO strain of yeast used in winemaking has government approval and is on the market. GMO wine grapes have been made in labs but are not yet on the market. Are GMOs in your wine? First, some basic definitions.

What are GMOs?

According to the Non-GMO Project, GMOs are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals. They are experimental combinations of genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding.

Now, the genetic makeup of just about any agricultural crop, including grapes, has been altered by centuries of selective breeding by humans. The basic wine varietals (Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, etc) are the result of humans working over many hundreds of years to create a grape with certain qualities. But a GMO crop is different, because has one or two foreign genes, often from a completely different species, spliced into its DNA using genetic engineering techniques. A gene is a section of DNA on a chromosome that contains the genetic code that creates a specific protein that is used in a particular cellular process.

Why create GMO wine or yeast?

The attraction of genetic engineering for farmers is to create crops that are resistant to pests and disease. Genetically modified grape vines have been made in Chile, France, Germany, South Africa and the US. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have created a genetically modified pesticide-resistant wine grape called Chancellor. A scientist at the University of Florida has used a jellyfish gene to create a grape wine that glows in the dark.

These vines have not been approved for commercial use, and organizations as diverse as the The Wine Institute, the Non-GMO Project, CCOF and individual wineries have stated that no GMOs should be used in the production of wine.

But what about the yeast used in wine production? A GM yeast strain, called ML01, has been approved for use in the US as well as Canada, Moldova and South Africa. Since there is no law requiring ingredient lists on wine labels, GMOs may be present in conventionally-made wine in the US. (The Australian Wine Research Institute has issued a statement declaring that no GM yeasts will be used in Australian wine for the foreseeable future.)

Why use GMO yeast? The ML01 variety of GM yeast would save winemakers some processing time because it can simultaneously perform two kinds of fermentation used in winemaking. (The two kinds are alcoholic and malolactic fermentation.) Wine produced faster would be potentially less prone to spoilage.

Wine that receives the “made with organic grapes” certification can potentially contain GMOs. Most wine yeast is grown on a substrate made of beets, and the substrate may contain GMOs.

To be certain about what’s in your wine glass, look ¬†for wines that have been verified by the Non-GMO Project.

Are GMOs safe?

The CCOF and the Non-GMO project say that a large and growing body of research shows that GMOs can be toxic, allergenic, or less nutritious than their natural counterparts. Studies indicate that they can disrupt the ecosystem, damage vulnerable wild plant and animal populations, and harm biodiversity.

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