Burnaby, B.C. -- The attitudes of industry, government and consumers are coming under scrutiny of an international research project spearheaded by a team of British Columbia policy researchers.
Working as part of a CA$3.4 million initiative investigating biomarkers that could help growers detect water stress in grapevines, fungus infections and flavor development, Simon Fraser University professors Dr. David Laycock and Dr. Michael Howlett are examining the policy environment that informs distribution and reception of new technologies in the wine sector. The government-funded research organizations Genome Canada and Genome BC are backing the project.
“We want to look broadly at the regulatory environment into which these kinds of innovations might be injected,” Laycock told Wines & Vines. “Because the regulatory environment in Canada is affected by changes in the United States -- but also to a lesser degree changes in other wine-producing countries -- it’s been important for us to pay some attention to the regulatory environment outside as well as inside Canada.”
Laycock, Howlett and SFU faculty including Drs. Steve Weldon, Andrea Mignone and Andy Hira are looking at government policies that regulate introduction of new technologies and the attitudes of industry members and the public toward the wine industry’s use of biotechnologies, including biomarkers and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“Scientific research, obviously, isn’t of great use if there isn’t a public policy environment in which the innovations can effectively be introduced to benefit either the Canadian wine industry or other national industries,” Laycock said.
A series of online surveys conducted by Angus Reid Strategies, as well as in-person interviews, will collect producer attitudes toward technological innovation in Canada and nine other countries including Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and the United States. South Africa also may join.
The online surveys also will gather producer views concerning the impact of regulatory environments in their respective countries. Laycock expects initial results to start appearing in mid-2010.
One of the questions researchers want to answer is why people (at least in Canada) are less worried about the use of biotechnology in fields such as healthcare than in the production of food and, by extension, wine. These concerns inhibit innovation, potentially to the industry’s detriment.
“Public policy makers and elected officials are not going to go out on a limb to promote things that they’re not confident the public is going to be behind -- or could be brought behind,” Laycock said. “One of the things that we should be able to indicate, then is: If there are areas of concern in public opinion, what is the basis of those concerns, and potentially how might they be addressed?”
Laycock explained that a better understanding of reasons for public support or concerns surrounding technological innovations will help improve policy responses, facilitating the wine industry’s access to and adoption of new technologies.
“The wine industry as a whole needs to have a better understanding of how exactly innovation occurs and is transmitted within the industry,” Laycock said. “What we’ve said to the science folks is that you’ve got to understand how the regulatory environment might conceivably be altered to provide a more accommodating environment into which these innovations might be injected.”
Public opposition to GMOs tends to color attitudes toward other applications of genomic research, Laycock said, even when there’s no manipulation of genetic material. This often leads producers to make conservative decisions about the kinds of innovation they’re willing to embrace. “Producers make rather conservative assumptions about what consumers will accept,” he said.
These decisions happen even when producers accept an innovation as harmless. Speaking to a broad range of wine producers in New Zealand last year, Laycock said even some of the best-educated winemakers were cautious about how the public might respond to diagnostic tools the current project is researching, even though there’s no manipulation of genetic material.
“While they might express interest in the technology, many of them said, ‘I wouldn’t want to be the first one to work with this, because I don’t know how the public would respond if the public were to find out that I was using something that they might not understand,’” Laycock said.
He attributed some of the anxiety to a New Zealand government commission report on GMOs, released in July 2001, which identified significant public concern regarding use of biotechnologies in agriculture.
By contrast, a similar report a few months earlier by the Royal Society of Canada urged caution in adopting new biotechnologies but failed to have a lasting impact on public opinion or policy. Government responded by strengthening the existing practice of “mandatory pre-market notification and a prudent process of science-based assessment for the potential risks of the introduction of new biotechnology products as food or feed or into the environment.”
Still, members of the trade such as Anthony Nicalo believe the public is wary. Nicalo, principal of Vancouver-based Farmstead Wines, which imports hand-crafted artisan wines from Europe, said a big reason the role of biotech in winemaking doesn’t receive much attention is because the winemaking process isn’t well understood outside industry circles. Wine, for most consumers, is a natural product and that’s it.
“Consumers don’t really have very much knowledge of how winemaking often works, whether that’s on an artisan or industrial scale, so there’s not much discussion of it,” Nicalo said.
He pointed to the recent controversy over “Cellared in Canada” wines as an example of the outrage consumers felt when their expectations of the wines they were buying were betrayed. Whether this encourages greater transparency surrounding winemaking practice in the future is another question, however.
Nicalo confessed himself to be skeptical, but he argued at a seminar in Vancouver earlier this year that transparency should be common practice. “The default standard should be transparency and disclosure, and then if there are issues that need to be explained, that’s where there could be effective public policy making.”
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