Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The European Union's Wine Grape Quandary

The European Union has recently published a lengthy "Farm to Fork Strategy" which sets out ambitious goals for its agricultural sector. One part of the agenda is to reduce the use of pesticides either by restricting the way they can be used or in many cases by not authorizing their continued use when those particular chemicals come up for periodic review by regulators. Often these restrictions are at odds with the rigorous safety assessments that have been made by many regulatory bodies around the world including the US EPA. Another part of the agenda is to encourage the expansion of Organic farming. There are several reasons why this plan will cause serious complications for European farmers, and since the EU is a major importer of food, feed and fiber crops, the restrictions that it applies to various grape pesticides will also be a problem for farmers around the world who export their crops to the EU market.


Many crops will be affected by this agenda, but one interesting case-study is what this push will mean for the prominent and highly regarded wine grape industry in the EU.  Wine grapes only represent around 3% of EU farmland, but around 20% of total EU pesticide use. There are several reasons for this relatively intensive use of crop protection products.  For one thing wine grapes are a very high value crop so growers can afford to use more products to optimize the yield and quality of their fruit. But there are also important historical and genetic reasons why certain pests represent a particular challenge for the European grape industry. 


With most crops, breeding is an important strategy to help with pest problems, notably when that involves tapping into the genetic diversity available in various wild relatives of the cultivated crop. With wine grapes the breeding option has essentially been "off-the-table" because of the long tradition which has identified very specific Old World grape varieties of the species Vitis vinifera which have been found to provide the highest quality for the weather and soil conditions of each growing region or "appellation." The long-term history and tradition of growing specific grape cultivars in each region is often called "terroir" and this is not anything the industry wants to change because it needs to meet consumer expectations and marketing narratives about wine quality.


Interestingly in the 1870s there was a dramatic change to the genetics of European grapes.  A root feeding insect called Phylloxera was inadvertently transported to Europe from North America. The various wild species of grapes that evolved alongside Phylloxera are fairly resistant to the damage from that specific insect pest. (The most familiar example of this kind of grape is a species called Vitis labrusca which consumers know as Concord Grapes because that is the kind of grape used to make non-alcoholic grapes juices such as the famous brand - Welches). The native American grapes are not considered to be that good for making high quality wines, but some hybrids between the two species are grown for wine in the Northern US in areas that are too cold for Vitis vinifera.  The Vitis vinifera grapes of Europe evolved without the challenge from Phylloxera so once the pest crossed the Atlantic the vineyards were highly susceptible to its damage and began a steep decline.  The only way the industry was able to be saved was by grafting the vinifera cultivars onto "American Rootstocks."  Grafting is a horticultural technique that has been practiced for centuries, but it was only with great reluctance that the European growers took that step. 

A grafted grapevine, image from Washington State University Extension

Around the world today virtually all wine grapes are grown on these "American" rootstocks because they can provide protection from soil-borne pests while allowing the traditional varieties to achieve the desired fruit qualities that made them so desirable. Rootstocks are used for almost all perennial crops and also for high value vegetable crops like fresh market tomatoes.


There are also two serious foliar diseases that also made the jump from North America to Europe in the 1800s. The first was a disease called Powdery Mildew and it causes loss of yield and quality as it grows on the exterior of the leaves and fruit.  Vitis vinifera is highly susceptible to this disease.

Grape Powdery Mildew infection of a developing grape cluster. Photo by Laura Jones/Univ. California, Davis

The solution that was found is probably the oldest known pesticide, elemental Sulfur.  This "natural" mineral product was found to control the disease but only if the grapes were "dusted" with something like 10 pounds/acre of sulfur every 7 to 10 days for much of the season until the fruit begins to ripen (a stage called veraison in grape-speak).  Sulfur is not very toxic to eat or drink, but it is an eye and skin irritant that can make it quite unpleasant to work in a vineyard. There is also some evidence that as with other dusts, sulfur can increase the risk of asthma among the children who live near the places were dust products are applied. California has recently restricted the use of sulfur and other dusts near populated areas. "Wettable" forms of sulfur can still be used without the respiratory problem and that is still a part of integrated pest management systems for grapes.  However; most modern grape growers use sulfur more sparingly because newer and more effective "synthetic fungicides" have been developed which require far smaller doses at longer intervals and which are in the EPA toxicity class IV described as "essentially non-toxic" by ingestion. I remember a time in 1978 during my second season being out in California vineyards for my graduate research that I was amazed to smell a beautiful floral aroma during the grape bloom period - something I had not experienced the season before. It was because I was in a block treated with the first example of these new fungicide options instead of the normal odiferous and irritating sulfur. I have a podcast about that event.  Grape growers who choose to grow for the organic market are not allowed to use these more modern tools and must therefore depend on high use-rate options like sulfur and something called "petroleum distillates" (think mineral oil for the later).  Thus, this is just one example of how the EU Field to Fork strategy embodies conflicting goals if it wants to reduce pesticide use and the push for more organic production.

Grape Downy Mildew sporulating on the bottom of a leaf. Photo by Mark Longstroth, Michigan State Univ. Extension

There was another "intruder" fungus pest that originated on North American grapes and then caused even more severe problems for the European industry in the 1870s.  It is called downy mildew.  The solution that was ultimately found to this disaster was another very early pesticide. It was discovered by a French botanist named Pierre Millarday who noticed a particular vineyard along a roadside that stood out by exhibiting much less damage from the new disease. He learned that the grower had applied copper sulfate combined with lime as a way to make the fruit look unappealing so that people passing by would stop helping themselves to his grapes (you can see an image of this blue coating in this article in Wine Spectator).  


That "natural" pesticide became known as the Bordeaux mix and it saved the grape industry.  It was also a much-needed solution for a related disease on potatoes that had cause the famous Irish Potato Famine in the same era.  Various copper-based products do work against these pests and many are approved for use in organic production, but unfortunately they are quite toxic to aquatic organisms and are persistent in the environment since the mineral copper is copper and it isn't going to break down to innocuous components the way that many other natural or synthetic chemicals do over time. After years of use, copper fungicides build up in vineyard soils and can become toxic to grape roots. Many European organic growers have had to abandon their organic status because of these soil issues.  Copper fungicides also require high use-rates (4-6 pounds/acre) and frequent applications because the copper is easily washed off by rain. 


Once again, many low toxicity, highly effective and environmentally safe synthetic fungicides that have been developed to fight downy mildew, but those options are not allowed to be used by Organic growers. European regulators are not fans of these copper fungicides, but their politicians have made exemptions for their own grape growers while at the same time setting up barriers to more benign products that have met rigorous standards in other countries.  


Organic growers also have limited options for the control of mold fungi that can infect the grapes as they become ripe. That sort of "bunch rot" is very bad for wine quality, but a disease that is well addressed with safe, modern synthetic fungicides while organic growers still depend on things like copper. Chemical herbicides are also desirable for grape production so that there isn't a need for erosion-causing mechanical plowing to take care of weeds in the vine rows. Tillage is still the main option for Organic growers. So, in all these cases the EU's pesticides and organic goals are in conflict with one another when it comes to that iconic industry


As mentioned earlier, there are several wild grape species that are more resistant to powdery and downy mildew. Theoretically traditional breeding methods could be used to transfer some of those genes. Conventional breeding of grapes is possible but slow, and it has been used to develop things like seedless table grapes with new colors and flavors.  Some new wine grape varieties with disease resistance from wild grapes have been developed by breeders working for the University of California, and they were repeatedly "back-crossed" so that the final result was a variety with 95% vinifera genes. But because of tradition and some remaining wine quality questions, almost all the wine grapes of that state and other grape growing regions around the world are still the traditional European varieties.


With modern genetic technologies it is now possible to work with only one or a few genes from the wild grape species that confer pest resistance and do so without any effect on the thousands of other genes in the storied cultivars. This sort of precision is now much more feasible because of the genome editing technologies that are generating excitement for many applications in both medicine and agriculture.  But the EU as a whole has been very resistant to accepting "GMOs" methods even though their own scientists have long argued that such changes do not represent any greater risk to public health or the environment than do traditional means of breeding. Scientists at Rutgers University and with the USDA are working now on using this approach to get downy mildew resistance into Chardonnay. 


There is some hope in the scientific community that European activists and political authorities will take the logical step of saying that they can consider these modern genome editing technologies differently from how they responded to first generation genetic engineering methods. There is at least a promising mention of such technologies in the EU's Farm to Fork Strategy


"In response to the request of Member States, the Commission is carrying out a study which will look at the potential of new genomic techniques to improve sustainability along the food supply chain."


Some are even optimistic that traditionally anti-GMO groups will make a distinction for the new methods. Ideally the EU might take reasonable approach of combing state of the art genetics with the sort of low hazard synthetic chemical options that would still be important in order to avoid selecting for fungal resistance to traits a grower would need to last for decades in a new vineyard planting.  That would also relieve the wine industries in other countries from having to cater to EU trade barriers in the choices they make about how to produce their crops.


Europeans are not likely to abandon their taste for wine and they don't have to in order to pursue their legitimate goals.  Organic isn't the solution here.  Instead what is needed is respect for the science and more effective communication of the actual safety story behind modern agriculture.  There is an excellent explanation written by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that describes how robust the approval system is for safe pesticide standards, and this is confirmed by academic experts as well. But all too often in Europe, politics trumps science. Let's hope we might someday raise a toast to a more constructive and science-driven solution to the EU's grape quandary.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

I Voted Today: How and Why

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My Legitimate Mail-In Ballot

Last Sunday I filled out my California mail-in ballot, signed it and put it in an old school mailbox as a symbolic gesture of my trust in the Postal Service. It felt good to exercise my right to vote even though it would be all too easy to be discouraged or cynical about the fact that as a Californian my vote does not count as much as those from some other states because of our flawed and outdated Electoral College system. At least I can have a more significant voice in “down ticket” races and the 12 state ballot measures put before us this year.

As for the presidential race I voted for Joe Biden and Kamila Harris for several specific reasons. Stated briefly these include:

· My Orientation as a Political Moderate

· My Conviction About the Importance of the Separation of Church and State

· Caring About the Integrity of Our Leaders

· The Economy, Taxes, Trade etc.

· International Issues

· The Need to Rationalize our Health Care System

· A Rational Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic, and

· My hope to see our Country Make a Meaningful Response to the Threat of Climate Change

My Orientation as a Political Moderate

I find myself both in agreement or disagreement with both major parties depending on the issue. I don’t often have the opportunity to support a candidate who is a true moderate willing to rise above partisanship. I believe that the nature of our primary system is to blame for this issue along with the irresponsibility of many voters who fail to engage during that voting option. I was relieved this year when Joe Biden was able to overcome this barrier and defeat his more liberal competitors. I think that our current president’s efforts to demonize Biden and Harris as representatives of the “Radical Far Left” is not only inaccurate, it is irresponsible and intentionally divisive at a time when that is the last thing we need is to fan the flames of distrust in government. Mr. Trumps rhetoric about “widespread voter fraud with mail-in ballots” and his implicit encouragement of a violent response to his likely defeat are deeply disturbing. I just hope that cooler heads will prevail and that we will really find out what the American people want from this election.

My Conviction About the Importance of the Separation of Church and State

I believe that one thing our founders “got right” was to establish the first nation without a state sponsored religion. The idea for that goes back to early movements and groups like the Waldensians, Anabaptists and Mennonites. It was the Pilgrims who first implemented that kind of separation among some of the American colonies. As a person of faith, I do believe that political power was “instituted by God” as part of “Common Grace” for the benefit of society, but I also take very seriously the words of Jesus when He said, “my kingdom is not of this world.” That is why I don’t look to our political system to be the driver for true “Kingdom” goals — something that far too many of my fellow Christians seem to desire. I don’t believe that we or anyone can legislate morality and that our efforts to play a positive role in society should be more of the “salt and light” variety, not the power of any government.

Caring About the Integrity of Our Leaders

I definitely do hope that we can elect leaders with a strong moral compass since we want them to strive for fairness, decency and mercy and to do so with honesty and integrity — a non-trivial aspiration in the messy world of politics. I feel good about Biden and Harris in this regard and it certainly does not hurt that they are people of faith. I had the opportunity to meet Biden in person in the 1980s when I lived in Delaware and he was running for senate and was coming to small local gatherings (one upside to living in the “49th largest state”). I had a very positive feeling about him back then and I’ve not seen any reason to believe otherwise since then. I think the fact that he has had to go through so many personal crises over the years has given him a kind of humility that also ends up being of value in the political realm. Now many of the terms I have just been using (decency, mercy, honesty, integrity, humility…) don’t in my mind describe Donald Trump. My place isn’t to judge anyone in this regard, I’m just saying that for someone who claims to be a Christian I don’t really see much in the way of “fruits of the spirit” that Jesus or the Apostle Paul told us would be the sign of true believers. “Just sayin…”

The Economy, Taxes, Trade etc.

One of the pro-Trump assumptions before the 2016 election was that as a “successful businessman” he would know how to foster a strong economy. The last 4 years have certainly not confirmed that narrative. According to a rare warning from the chairman of the “FED” we are on the verge of a financial crisis which will further strain the lives of millions of Americans. Part of that is about the pandemic, but there is more to the story. We really need a more rational and fair tax system that does not just favor the rich as has been the case with Trump’s agenda and the legislature’s failure to fix anything. Someone who has the lawyers and accountants to work the system and only owe $750 per year if anything does not understand how the rest of us feel. Then when it comes to trade wars our president said that they were “easy to win” as he initiated several. We are now looking at a record trade deficit with China and US farmers have been seriously hurt — something I care about a lot since I work in agriculture. Maybe globalism ended up hurting the people who work in our manufacturing sector, but Trump really has not delivered for the agricultural or industrial worker parts of his “base.” I don’t expect any magic solutions from a Biden presidency, but it would be unlikely that it could be worse than what we have been seeing.

International Issues

The world is facing extremely serious problems like the humanitarian and refugee crises stemming from the repression that continues in corrupt Central and South American countries as well as in Africa. Middle Eastern conflicts are seemingly never done, and we have been uncharacteristically absent from the diplomatic sphere about that. Our current president has been alienating our long-term allies while being bizarrely “soft” on dictators in places like Turkey, Russia, North Korea and Belarus. No, we don’t want to be the world’s “policeman” or continue endless wars, but we need to be serious and creative about these conflicts. We need to have an active strategy to deal with mass migrations and refugees as people around the world flee oppression and hunger. Back to my Christian convictions, these victims deserve love, not imprisonment, family separation or other forms of demeaning treatment. Can a Biden presidency easily resolve these complex problems? No, but we clearly need to pursue new and different approaches.

The Need to Rationalize our Health Care System

Having reached retirement age I am now taking advantage of the “socialized medicine” that is Medicare and the “government funded income” that is Social Security. That kind of “socialism” has long been a benefit enjoyed by a major part of Mr. Trump’s base among older people. Before I was able to access those benefits, I was for many years in the unfortunate position of being self-employed with “pre-existing conditions” so that I had to buy my own insurance at ridiculous cost. Once my kids had their own insurance, I simply went without for several years and was blessed to have been healthy (I guess I got by with any violation of the “individual mandate” that is so controversial). What we need is a hybrid system where people can either get good job-based insurance if they are so lucky or be able to buy private insurance that does not charge outrageously different amounts for different people. We should ably probably also have access to some sort of “public option.” I believe that is the sort of hybrid approach is what Biden and Harris would support, but we also need a congress that will actually do something on this topic with the goal of solving this problem, not using it for political mileage. President Trump promised a “repeal and replace” approach vs “Obama Care,” but that has never emerged over four years nor has the Republican party put forward such a measure. Again, its hard to imagine any administration doing a poorer job on this key issue.

A Rational Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic

There isn’t any specific government to blame for the Covid-19 Pandemic, but as we look around the world lots of countries have done a much better job of dealing with it than we have. Part of what makes this disease unusually challenging is that it is an RNA-virus rather than the more typical DNA-viruses that people and animals usually have. (Incidentally most plant viruses are of the RNA category and as a “plant pathologist” I can’t resist pointing that out) There is some serious irony about the way that President Trump has “dealt with” the pandemic, and how he and many in his inner circle have contracted this nasty new disease. Countries like Singapore, Taiwan and even China have been able to get much better control of the disease through simple common-sense measures like wearing masks in public and social distancing. I find it appalling that so many people in the US and in the EU have not followed these simple guidelines that would not only have reduced their own risk, but which would have kept them from infecting others. I’m sorry, but wearing a mask is not some sort of freedom-denying ask. Its the practical and ethical thing to do. Unfortunately having a president who doesn’t see it that way has made things in our country much worse than they had to be. Then, when the president got the disease, he had access to treatments that are not yet available to most people. The irony is that the new anti-viral drug remdesivir that he received came out a cooperative research program between the pharmaceutical company, Gidead and the CDC and NIH that began during the Obama era. It is most effective when given very early in the infection as it was for Trump, but there are limited supplies so they are rationed to those with severe symptoms. The development of the drug and it’s large scale production was slowed because of Trump’s funding cuts to those agencies and the reorganization of the White House Pandemic Office. This is just one of the ways in which the Trump administration has mishandled the pandemic. That drug and the mono-clonal antibody therapy Trump received are probably not going to be available to most people for some time and both were developed using stem cell cultures from and aborted fetus back in the 1970s. Opponents of this kind of stem cell research today conveniently ignore this conflict with their agenda. Ultimately we need a good vaccine for this disease, but the long-time success of the anti-vax activists in scaring people away may mean that we don’t get enough people treated to actually get this disease under control. What we need from our highest public officials is an approachable and accurate presentation of the underlying medical science. We have not seen something like that from the administration on many topics which leads me to my final reason for my presidential vote for change.

My hope to see our Country Make a Meaningful Response to the Threats of Climate Change

Finally, I want to talk about how my vote involves my concerns about how our country will or will not take a more aggressive role with regard to finding ways to address the issue of climate change. As an agricultural scientist I am fully respectful of the consensus among climate scientists that this is a nearly unprecedented threat and that human activities play a role in why it is happening. I am most aware of the implications for farming as overall crop productivity is being compromised by extreme weather events and even by more subtle climate shifts. As it turns out, slightly warmer nights reduce crop yields because the plants are more active in terms of their metabolism and thus burn up more of the energy they captured from the sun the day before. Even moderate drought stress which has become more common lowers yields. I believe that there are things that can be done in ag and in many other industry sectors that simultaneously help to ameliorate climate change, and which are good for the economy. When farmers employ technologies that allow them to grow their crops without tilling their fields they are an important part of the solution to reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by sequestering that carbon in that undisturbed soil. There are now novel ways to use sunlight to generate hydrogen for use as a fuel alternative and/or to do that by converting the hydrogen to ammonia as a less dangerous option that retains the same benefits. The cost of solar panels is coming down, and that along with wind power innovations are both profitable businesses and positive steps vs climate change. Biden and Harris are committing to support job creating climate change alternatives and hopefully for not getting in the way of private industry and academic innovation that will enhance these efforts. President Trump on the other hand regularly denies the science around climate change and supports unsustainable energy policies. My hope is that the younger generations who know they will have to live with our actions or inactions will support the democratic candidates who at least aspire to finding viable solutions to this threat.


So, have voted as a way to make whatever difference I can through our electoral system. As small as that role maybe it is the best I can do as one person. If I can encourage others to consider these reasons and vote, then maybe I can raise the needle a bit. If you have read through this all, thank you for your time and your consideration.

Monday, August 24, 2020

My comments to the USDA about de-regulation of a transgenic, disease resistant line of American Chestnut

File:PSM V84 D565 American chestnut mitchel county.jpg

The kind of tree that was once abundant in the US (Wikimedia commons)

For years, public sector scientists have been working on a remedy for the disease-related near extinction of the American Chestnut which was once the dominant large tree in the forests of the Apalacian mountains.  I've heard updates about this over the years at "biotech bootcamp" events and I admire the patience and resolve that they have demonstrated in this ambitious effort.  Here is what I wrote to the agency:

Submitted Sunday 8/23 tracking # 1k4-9ijy-kaf2


I am writing in support of the petition for deregulated status for a transgenic American Chestnut event which has been submitted by the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. This submission is the culmination of a long-term effort to develop a means by which this key forest species could be restored to its historical role in the forest ecosystems of Eastern North America -  a role that has been seriously compromised since the accidental introduction of a fungus which is a deadly pathogen of Chestnuts.  Although it will certainly take a long time to re-establish such a long-lived species, this strategy is the best hope we have of  achieving that very desirable environmental outcome.


My graduate training was in the field of plant pathology at UC Davis in the late 1970s and early 80s, so I can appreciate the challenge of counteracting this disease of this in natural forest settings. Since that time, I have also had the opportunity to closely follow progress in the science of plant biotechnology in both academic and commercial research.  The decades of experience that now exist concerning the safe and beneficial applications of transgenic technology in global agriculture demonstrate that broad deployment of this advance in a forestry setting is also something that can proceed without any undesirable or unmanageable outcomes.  Indeed, as other commenters have noted, reestablishment of this species could be expected to contribute significantly to carbon sequestration and thus help to address climate change. (see This sort of solution also needs to be considered for other cases where introduced exotic pests compromise the health of our forests ( see


It is significant that this project has been carried out by non-commercial entities simply focused on environmental goals. As an indicator of that, the event in question ("Darling 58") was never patented. The plan has always been to make that and related lines available for free for backcrossing into lines from multiple public Chestnut breeding and restoration efforts.  Many of the other comments that have been submitted to APHIS about this petition are from those researchers who are awaiting the opportunity to be involved in those next steps.


The gene that was chosen for insertion into chestnuts is for the very commonly occurring enzyme Oxalate Oxidase or "OxO."  It has always been a part of the plant genome and the human diet so there are no anticipated problems if it is expressed in reintroduced trees. The enzyme is not fungicidal itself but rather detoxifies a chemical that the fungus produces to weaken the Chestnut tree's defense mechanisms.  That kind of trait is less likely to select for resistance, something that is very important since re-establishment will be a long-term project. It is also logical that the trait will be backcrossed into many Chestnut lines to insure sufficient genetic diversity since this species will face the need for adaptation to climate change and other challenges.


In the absence of negative outcomes from decades of plant biotechnology, the main objection to projects such as this tends to be based on the "precautionary principle" - the idea that there is no proof that nothing undesirable could ever occur.  As such, that objection fails to consider the consequences on not employing the technology.   In this case inaction would mean that important forest ecosystems will continue to lack the natural "keystone species" which is so important for the wildlife to thrive as it once did in these areas.  The objection to human intervention in a natural system is also flawed in that human activity has already occurred with the introduction of that destructive pest.  Indeed, it makes sense to employ the best solutions available to us as humans who strive to be good stewards of our environment. The deregulation of this transgenic event by APHIS is an excellent next step towards that goal.