New form of public involvement in French grapevine project

Genetic engineering experiment: From information to interaction

The Institut National de Recherche Agronomique in Alsace has been trialling a new form of public involvement over recent years. A release experiment with genetically modified grapevines was monitored for six years by a Local Monitoring Committee, which helped develop the biosafety research questions. The project ended in 2010 when the trial field was destroyed. The final report appeared in the online journal PLosBiology at the end of 2010.

Fanleaf degeneration is a crop disease with significant financial consequences for wine-growers. One of the symptoms is spotty, yellow leaves. The INRA in Colmar studied transgenic grapevines that are resistant to this disease.

Source: INRA

In the past, methods of involving the public in the introduction of new technologies have usually been restricted to public information or public hearings. More recent methods place a greater emphasis on the active involvement of citizens and stakeholders. One such method was trialled at the Institut National de Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in Colmar from 2003 to 2010.

The focus was a field trial with GM grapevines that are resistant to the grapevine fanleaf virus (GFLV). GFLV is one of several viruses that cause fanleaf degeneration. It is transmitted via soil-dwelling nematodes. Affected plants normally have to be completely removed and the soil treated with nematicidal substances, although these are banned in many countries. The transgenic grapevines produce a coat protein of the GFLV virus, which protects them to a large extent against infection by the ‘real’ viruses. Since the virus is transmitted through the soil, only the rootstocks are genetically modified; the scions grafted onto them do not contain any transgenes. For the field trial, soil was taken from two infected vineyards and brought to the INRA site.

The Local Monitoring Committee (LMC), which was convened before the start of the trial, had no fixed membership, but was open to anyone interested, and members were free to pull out at any time. The members were representatives of wine-growers, consumer associations, environmental and nature conservation associations, representatives of the town council, the regional council and the regional environment agencies, as well as one independent wine-grower and a neighbour of the trial site. Despite the considerable time investment involved, the composition of the committee remained stable over a period of six years.

The biosafety research experiments on the GM grapevines were planned in the first instance by INRA scientists and then discussed and modified in the LMC. Following discussions in the LMC, for instance, scions were chosen from a grapevine variety that is not otherwise grown in Alsace and which has a very different appearance from the Alsace grapevines. Although the scions were not genetically modified, this approach was intended to prevent fears among the local community about the transgene outcrossing to native grapevines. Another modification instigated by the LMC was for a membrane to be buried under the trial field to isolate the experiment. This was designed to prevent the GFLV-infected nematodes from spreading. The membrane was also employed because of fears raised in the LMC that horizontal gene transfer could take place between the transgenic rootstocks and the nematodes. However, the INRA scientists regarded these fears as unfounded.

The LMC also initiated additional research, e.g. into whether an exchange of genetic material takes place between the transgenic rootstock and the soil microflora or the non-transgenic scion. In addition, the LMC developed a research programme on conventional methods of controlling the GFLV virus.

After the field trial was partially destroyed in September 2009, the LMC received broad support from a wide range of organisations and parties, including from those opposed to the use of genetic engineering in agriculture. Since the rootstocks remained unharmed, the research work was resumed. However, in August 2010 the field trial was destroyed so completely that the research had to be abandoned.