Issued by the African Centre for Biosafety and Earthlife Africa

The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) and Earthlife Africa Ethekwini (ELA), are calling on the South African government to reject an application by the Institute for Wine Biotechnology (IWB) based at the University of Stellenbosch, to conduct open- air field trials in South Africa, involving genetically modified (GM) Sultana and Chardonnay grapevine varieties.

The groups believe that the risks of contamination of adjacent fertile grapevine varieties by the GM cultivars are unacceptably high, and thereby threaten South Africa’s lucrative wine export market, especially to the European Union-South Africa’s biggest export destination, where consumers are still reeling from the recent contamination scandal involving illegal GM rice. The African Centre for Biosafety has independently assessed the Institute for Wine Biotechnology’s scanty risk assessment and discovered that it relies heavily on inconclusive, outdated and abandoned biosafety studies conducted in Germany by the Institute for Vine Breeding (IVB).

Indeed, the ACB has found that field trials of GM grapevines had been stopped prematurely by the German Institute, because the varieties, which had been genetically modified to possess resistance against fungal pests, failed hopelessly as they were found to be as susceptible as conventional vines.

“Genetically Modified grapes do not work, are not needed, and place the environment and South Africa’s export markets at unnecessary risks” said Vanessa Black of Earthlife Africa.

According to the Institute for Wine Biotechnology’s application, it hopes to eventually produce GM grapes for use as food (table grapes) and wine from the Chardonnay grapes, but no indication has been given by the IWB of what the future intention of these particular field trials is, and the claimed purpose of the trial is ‘proof of concept’ only.

“The chances that adjacent grapevines of fertile varieties will be contaminated by these GM trials are extremely high” said Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety.

“The Chardonnay berries contain 2-4 seeds per berry and seed dispersal is possible by humans and animals, notably birds. There is a possibility that animal exposure might occur after rain and storms where grape berries could drop to the ground and escape from the site in rain water,” said Mayet.

“The proposed field trials run the risk of European consumers rejecting South Africa’s wine because they fear that it will become contaminated by the experimental GM grapevines. This is a real fear, because already, GM rice grown in experimental field trials in the United States in 2001, has turned up illegally in the EU in the last few months, costing the US rice industry billions of dollars. The same could happen to the South African wine industry, with disastrous consequences for our economy as a whole” said Vanessa Black from Earthlife Africa.

The South African wine industry produces a million tons of grapes annually and supports approximately 300 000 people. The total wine production in South Africa during 2005 was 9.05 million hectares, with a projected production level of 9.63 million hectares for 2006. South Africa’s major export destinations for wine are the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Canada. [2] According to Wines of SA, the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and Finland alone accounted for 83% of SA‘s wine exports in 2004. [3] The scientific assessment is available upon request from Contact: Earthlife Africa Ethekwini: Vanessa Black (+27 (0) 82 472 8844) African Centre for Biosafety: Mariam Mayet (+27 (0) 83 269 4309)

[1] The ACB and ELA are members of the South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering (SAFeage,

[2] United States Department of Agriculture, World Wine Situation and Outlook Commodity and Marketing Programs-Processed Products Division Market Access and Analysis Group August 2006