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What are grape varietal innovations worth? A professor paints the picture

Jim Prevor

We have carefully followed the VitisGen and VitisGen2 project for a long time. It is a multi-institution research collaboration, funded by the USDA-NIFA Specialty Crop Research Initiative and focused on enabling the production of new grape varieties.

At the most recent New York Produce Show and Conference in December 2021, we had an important presentationConsumers, Grapes and Gene Editing Cornell’s Brad Rickard Sheds Light on What the Research Shows and What’s Yet to Be Learned.

Now the Global Grape Summit, to be held in Bakersfield, California, will continue this exploration with a presentation by Julian Alston, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Director of the Center for Wine Economics within the Robert Mondavi Institute at the University of California, Davis. This presentation — titled What are Grape Varietal Innovations Worth? — is designed to help an industry wrestling with an explosion of varieties.

We asked Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor to connect with Julian Alston prior to his presentation at the recent Global Grape Summit:

Q: What are Grape Varietal Innovations Worth? That’s an intriguing and complex question to dissect from an economic vantage point.

A: In my roles at UC Davis, I have undertaken various studies related to the economics of production of grapes and wine, largely focused on genetic innovation, that I will draw on for the presentation in Bakersfield. Over the past 10 years, I have served as the trait economics lead for the VitisGen and VitisGen2 project, a multi-institution research collaboration funded by the USDA-NIFA Specialty Crop Research Initiative for the development of new grape varieties.

The VitisGen2 goals are defined as follows:

  • Develop novel methods to improve wine, table, raisin grape taste, quality, and appearance, such as through plant breeding and genomics.
  • Identify and address threats from diseases and insect pests.
  • Develop novel methods to improve resistance to these pests and diseases
  • Improve production efficiency and profitability long term throughout the table grape, raisin, and wine industry

[Editor’s note: As described on the VitisGen website, “VitisGen and VitisGen2 are multi-disciplinary, collaborative projects focused on decreasing the time, effort and cost involved in developing the next generation of grapes. Incorporating cutting edge genomics technology and socioeconomic research into the traditional grape breeding process will speed up the ability to identify important genes related consumer-value traits like disease resistance, low temperature tolerance and enhanced fruit quality. Identifying these genes will help grape breeding programs from around the world to more rapidly develop new grape varieties that will appeal to a wide range of consumers, while addressing grower and producer needs.] 

Q: At our New York Produce Show in December, Brad Rickard revealed the new VitisGen2 research built around table grape innovations, focusing on consumer attitudes and industry dynamics related to gene editing. Brad discussed proliferation of grape varieties and how priorities on trait developments may not always align between producers, retailers, and consumers, and vary within those segments.  How have you been involved in this collaboration?

A: In 2017, I asked Brad and Karina Gallardo (from Washington State University) to join us in the “trait economics” team for VitisGen2, our component of which is focused on the economics of varietal innovation in California table grapes. Within that, Karina led the part on eliciting consumer preferences, and Brad’s contribution in New York was based on preliminary results from that work.

That element is now complete, and we have a couple of papers submitted to professional academic journals.

Q:  That’s exciting. Could you provide abstracts?

A:  One paper looks at Consumer Acceptance of New Plant-Breeding Technologies: An Application to the Use of Gene Editing in Fresh Table Grapes. This study estimates consumers’ willingness to pay for specific product (quality) and process (agronomic) attributes of table grapes, including taste, texture, external appearance, expected number of chemical applications, and the breeding technology used to develop the plant.

Considering varietal traits, on average our survey respondents were willing to pay the highest price premiums for specific offers of improvements in table grape taste and texture, followed by external appearance and expected number of chemical applications. Considering breeding methods, on average our respondents were willing to pay a small premium for table grapes developed using conventional breeding rather than gene editing (e.g. CRISPR).

The group of consumers most likely to reject gene editing considers both genetic engineering and gene editing to be breeding technologies that produce foods that are morally unacceptable and/or not safe to eat.

Another submitted paper, Consumers’ Willingness to Accept Gene Edited Fruit, An Application to Quality Traits for Fresh Table Grapes, examines consumers’ willingness to pay (WTP) for selected quality attributes of green varieties of table grapes. Data was collected using an online survey that included a discrete “choice” experiment, where one group of respondents considered table grapes developed using gene editing (CRISPR-Cas9) and the other considered table grapes developed using conventional breeding.

The highest WTP value across attributes was for sweetness, followed by crispness, uniform skin color, flavor, and size.

The rank order of the WTP values for the table grape attributes was the same for both breeding technologies. We found no differences in the attribute-specific WTP values for grapes between the two breeding technologies. Our estimates indicated a slight discount in overall WTP for table grapes produced using CRISPR compared with conventional breeding, but this discount was neither economically nor statistically significant.

Q: That seems to be a critical and enlightening point that the difference was not statistically meaningful between gene editing and conventional breeding.

A: In the paper’s conclusion, the analyses suggest the existence of four groups that vary in level of knowledge about Genetic Engineering (GE) and CRISPR. The variation in self-reported knowledge about breeding methods is directly related to the perception that grapes developed using CRISPR are safe, natural, and ethical to eat. Respondents reporting that they are well-informed about GE and CRISPR are also more likely to have positive attitudes towards these breeding methods.

Q: This suggests an educational/marketing component…But this raises other questions. Will retailers stock the products if they are concerned of vocal activist protests?

A: For now, USDA treats gene editing differently from GMOs, so no distinctive label is required. Will there be counter marketing against gene editing? Perhaps a non-GMO project extended to gene editing? Could gene edited product in the U.S. become an issue for exporters to Europe? These are important questions we can discuss in this preview and continue at the Global Grape Summit. 

The other main part of our trait economics work under VitisGen2 is a monograph, in process, looking backwards at varietal innovation in California table grape production and measuring the value of those innovations. I am primarily responsible for that part, and much of the writing remains to be done, including on the table grape breeding industry. For that, I envision spending some time over the next few months talking with table grape breeders to learn more about the economics of their industry. Participating in the Global Grape Summit should be helpful.

I can summarize what we have learned so far in this project. For context, I can provide some broader background on how we economists think about the value of varietal traits. I can also provide an overview of the changing mix of table grape varieties being grown in California and traits being emphasized and how we value them. 

In table grapes, we’ve had big changes in the varieties grown over the past 50 years, and especially, over the past 20 years.

Q: Yes. Brad noted there were essentially seven main varieties back in 1970, and today we see 20 main varieties, adding that Thompson Seedless used to be about 70% of the acreage back in 1970, and it’s probably closer to 25% now.

A: There’s been a lot of innovation going on in table grapes, compared with other grapes. There’s been almost no innovation in varieties of wine grapes or raisin grapes in comparison.  

Q: When you say there’s a lot of innovations in table grapes, what types of innovations are you talking about? Are these focused on eating qualities, such as taste and texture, size and appearance, or more agronomic, less obvious traits like increasing yields, pest and disease resistance, longer shelf-life, reduced chemical use…although there could be a sustainability marketing side there.

A: The guys who breed table grapes and grow them talk about flavor, good eating attributes, whether it’s crunchy and sweet, that it’s seedless, what it looks like, the berry size and color, the shelf life, and what part in the season it’s available.     

These are the kinds of attributes they’re stressing in their marketing. I don’t know whether all the newer varieties have desirable agronomic attributes like higher yield, but I’m betting breeders can’t sell a variety that has significantly lower yield.

One of the attributes breeders and growers particularly care about is the seasonal availability of the variety, and the reason is because the market pays premiums for different times of the year. It also pays for berry size.

I have graphs to convey this: weekly price per pound by variety, and also by size, over a five-year average, showing for particular varieties that have a premium depending on when they’re available in the season, and the berry size.

For example, Flame Seedless is an early variety, and it is particularly valuable early in its season, when there aren’t many other varieties available. And Crimson Seedless is a late variety, which is particularly valuable late in its season.

Q: What are the forces driving the varietal innovation?  

A: Let’s look at who is involved in this business. We’ve got private breeders from all over the world, including three or four companies that are important as private breeders in California. Then there are public breeders and public-private partnerships. The USDA and California Department of Food and Ag are involved in breeding. The California Table Grape Commission, which is partly funded by growers, does some of that work with places like UC Davis.

We have all these different groups producing these private varieties, and they’re choosing what kinds of attributes to emphasize in development and that consumers demand. These are attributes like seedless, large berries, uniform color, flavor, and sensory attributes. Cheaper is better. And that comes from low costs for growers. Consumers expect year-round availability, and some of that is provided by imports, more of that is being provided by local product groups with different seasonal availability.

Consumers also care about what we call “process attributes,” about how it was made — whether it was produced using organic production methods, if it is GMO or not. Is it labeled as having been produced sustainably or locally or according to “fair trade” rules?  

Consumers will pay money for those attributes in the product. And so, consumers demand the attributes of the product itself and the attributes of the way the product was produced and processed.

Q: Yes. But isn’t your research based on the rankings of the attributes for which consumers are willing to pay premiums? The number of chemical applications, and whether it was produced using gene editing or conventional methods proved a less relevant factor compared to the taste, texture, and appearance, at least on average in the research results. Isn’t that the bottom line, presuming there’s room for niche marketing?

A: Producers demand traits that are valuable to consumers so they can sell for a higher price. So, they care about what consumers want. They like varieties that have higher yield, lower costs, that are pest- and disease-resistant, and resilient to the climate. So those are all the things that plant breeders think about. I think we’re going to develop varieties that have combinations of attributes that everybody likes.

And often, we talk about introducing products that have new product attributes, without forgoing agronomic attributes. Given the same yield and other desirable agronomic attributes, can we have a different flavor profile, or different seasonal availability or something else?

So, we have very many dimensions… and if we have a variety that’s disease-resistant, that makes it possible to grow using organic methods, then you can have low cost and something for which the consumer is very willing to pay a premium.

On the other hand, consumers may discount a new variety or choose not to buy it at all if they think it was produced with a technology that is new or unfamiliar, like gene editing.

We always have this issue — a concern about technology — and whenever we introduce any important innovation, somebody’s going to be opposed to it.

Q: That’s true. Some people are just wary of change or an unknown quantity…

A: You can talk about pasteurization, refrigeration, or vaccination for TB… there’s always opposition to new things. So, there’s not necessarily opposition to new varieties; it’s mainly opposition to the new ways of producing. Some people are opposed to genetic engineering, even though all the scientists and producers say it is safe for consumers and benign to the environment or in fact better for the environment than traditional production technologies.

But still, there’s opposition to those genetically engineered products by at least some groups in society. And because some activist groups are opposed, that contributes to food supply chain intermediaries being reluctant to stock products that contain genetically engineered food.  

We have this situation where there can be resistance to technologies either by consumers directly or by market intermediaries influenced by perceptions of political issues associated with products that may affect their bottom line one way or another.

We have this relatively new technology used for plant breeding called gene editing, and it’s very powerful. It’s popular with scientists and it’s simple, fast, cheap, and accurate compared with previous methods, but some people perceive it as the same as genetic engineering, or they’re suspicious of it in similar ways.  

There’s interest in this topic because plant breeders can pursue varietal innovations using either conventional methods, genetic engineering, or gene editing. Genetic engineering can do things those traditional methods cannot, and gene editing can do things much faster than traditional methods and more cheaply. So, plant breeders want to use the new methods, but there’s concern it will result in issues of non-acceptance.

The value of a new variety depends on many things, but crucially it depends on the rate and extent of adoption by producers, which turns on market acceptance. There’s some big motivation for this project.

We can use a range of complementary methods to estimate the elements of benefits perceived by individual producers and consumers of a new variety of table grapes, either looking backwards, at past innovations, or forwards at prospective innovations.

These include observed or elicited price premia, yield gains and pecuniary (out of pocket) and nonpecuniary (environmental) savings (or increases) in costs of production.

Estimates at the individual level can be scaled up using market models to estimate total benefits and shares accruing to breeders, producers, and consumers at home and abroad, depending on the timing and extent of the adoption of the new variety by growers. During the presentation, I’ll provide more detail.

Q: It seems challenging to account for myriad variables across the supply chain. How does the financial value differ among various stakeholders, and is it possible to quantify certain aspects, such as the societal/environmental economic worth, etc.?

In addition, wouldn’t the economic analyses have to be based on projected scenarios for different varietal developments, which for grapes, stretch over decades of time?

A: If the new varieties and those they replaced already exist in the market, we can just observe them out there and compare them using market data. How do they compare in terms of their price premium, the yields and the cost savings or potential cost increases? The same kind of analysis applies when we are looking ahead prospectively at new varieties that have not yet been developed or released, but now we cannot observe the price premiums and so on directly in the market. We have to use other methods.

In either case, there may also be some unobservable non-pecuniary differences in terms of the environmental aspects. Growers don’t like using pesticides, environmentalists don’t like us using pesticides, and so, there might well be a benefit to growers and to society from a variety with pest resistance, so that we don’t have to use as much pesticide, but these values are usually not observable in the market.

How you deal with that depends on whether you are thinking about the benefits to the grower or the broader community.

And if we combine those, then we must scale this up to the market, and to work out how those total benefits to society are shared between breeders, growers, market intermediaries, consumers in California, the United States, or in some other country, because these varieties can be adopted in other countries, and these products are traded.

If we make table grapes better in some way for domestic consumers, it could also be better for foreign consumers. It might simply be cheaper. If you have a yield-increasing innovation or cost-saving innovation, eventually that savings results in an increase in quantity, and lower market price. In this way, some of the benefits from the cost savings accrue to consumers.

When we’re measuring the value of the new variety, some of the producers’ share might be spent in paying a royalty for the use of the variety. We have to work all that out.

Q: Do you extrapolate those numbers over time with different scenarios?

A: We think about this as a long-term investment in developing a new variety over a multistage process that takes many years; it can take decades to develop a new variety, and then the benefits can be reaped over many further years or decades when that new variety is being grown.

Whether it’s in the public sector or privately, somebody is spending money on developing a new variety. Eventually, if the research is successful, a new variety is released. If somebody starts growing this new variety, that’s where we start getting those benefits, with shares going to producers and consumers and breeders and so on. And as more and more acres are planted to the new varieties, more and more of these benefits accrue, and that could go on for a very long time, but eventually this new variety will be replaced with some other newer variety.

So, we get a stream of benefits from this variety, which takes time. It takes many years to develop the variety; it takes a few years after you plant the variety until the vine bears fruit, and it takes some years after that before it reaches maximum. And then, it may stay in the ground for 25 years.

The dynamics are different for perennials compared with annual crops. If you grow wheat, you can switch your whole production with a new variety each year. A typical vineyard may last 25 years, and it will not be worth grubbing out existing healthy vines to replace them with a new variety unless it’s really going to be much better.  

With perennial crops like grape vines, the process of adopting innovations is much more drawn out, and the whole process is decades long from the first investment in research through the process of developing and commercializing a new variety, until the full stream of benefits has been realized.

VitisGen2 has just finished, which follows VitisGen1, so it has been about 10 years since we’ve been working on this project out of Cornell University with participants from all over the country, looking at the developers’ methods for improving plant varieties through plant breeding and evolving this in part to do work on measuring the benefits from these innovations.

There was a group of us that worked on VitisGen2.  Our job was to estimate the economic value of specific varietal traits; the agronomic and fruit quality traits, and value to individual consumers, and try to estimate the total market wide economic value and the distribution of benefits from new varieties among market participants.

That second part of the analysis depends a lot on the timing and the rate of adoption and hence the scale of production of the new variety. These aspects depend in turn on the cost of the technology to growers, in terms of royalties or license fees, as well as what consumers are willing to pay for those varieties, if they will accept them, and how much it costs to grow them.  

So that was our project, to look at aspects of these traits and what they’re worth to individual growers and consumers, and the society.

In VitisGen1 we looked at benefits from varieties of resistant to diseases like Pierce’s Disease and Powdery Mildew, and we learned that innovations would be very valuable to growers and consumers of wine, table, and raisin grapes. These are very expensive diseases, and, in fact, some resistant varieties have since been developed and released, bearing out what we learned there.

In the second part, of VitisGen2, we focused on table grapes.. One part, which is not yet finished, is to look backwards and to say what’s been the landscape of variety innovation for table grapes in California. The other part, which is essentially complete, is a forward-looking prospective analysis asking what will consumers be willing to pay for specific product attributes, and how will they value new technologies as part of that.  

We have observed very large opposition to genetically engineered (GE) crop and livestock technologies, especially in Europe, since GE crops were first introduced in the mid-1990s. As a result, GE varieties have been used only for a very small number of crops grown in a relatively small number of countries, and this method of varietal innovation has been generally stifled.

We’ve been growing genetically modified crops in the United States since 1995. By the way, in all those years, we’ve never had anybody reporting illness caused by that. So, gene editing is much more recent, and there’s some concern that it might face similar barriers and consequences.  

It’s timely to investigate the economics of gene editing and especially in the case of crops like table grapes. 

Q: What is the difference between genetic engineering and gene editing? Why is the USDA not distinguishing gene editing from conventional breeding?

A: To manipulate DNA, gene editing is replacing portions of the DNA of the organism. It’s really within the genome of the organism, it’s not introducing genes from some other species, as is often the case with genetic engineering.

Gene editing is a way of doing the same kinds of things we do with conventional breeding or sometimes with genetic engineering… but it is simpler, faster, cheaper, and more precise than other methods.

We see this application to table grapes as a case study that’s informative for the more general landscape of the policy issues related to gene editing, or CRISPR.

The US government has authorized the use of gene editing without requiring special regulations like we have with genetic engineering.

The objective of this study is to estimate consumers’ willingness to pay for particular types of attributes in table grapes and how that varies according to the breeding method, and we’re comparing conventional breeding to gene editing CRISPR.

So, there are two points together. One is to ask what the different quality attributes are worth to consumers. The other is how is that valuation affected by whether those traits are introduced using conventional breeding or gene editing.

We can’t observe these new varieties, let alone consumer valuations of them, because they haven’t been made yet, and certainly not in the marketplace, so it’s hypothetical work.

Q: How do you build hypothetical scenarios that mimic the reality when shoppers are in the produce department selecting and buying these products?

A: The way the consumer survey works is we basically split the survey population into two groups, and we ask the same questions about preferences for table grape attributes of each group, drawn from the same population. For one group we said the new variety was produced using conventional breeding, and to the other group we said the new variety was produced using gene editing to compare answers and differences.

The method we used is Qualtrics, an online survey platform.  In April of 2020, we did an experimental design process and wanted to get 2,000 consumer respondents to have enough statistical power. We ended up with 2,973 after we removed some inconsistent ones. We wanted them to be representative of US demographics, and the respondents had to be in charge of shopping for their household and have purchased table grapes in the previous three months.

We asked them questions about their preferences on types of attributes, and how they felt about science and technology and the other associated attributes. We also asked some discrete choice experiment questions.

But first we asked demographic and screening questions, and from the results we determined the groups were similar enough to make the conjoint analysis reasonable, where we treat them as though they’re drawn from the same population.

Comparing our survey sample with the US population broadly, they’re not the same, and that’s somewhat to be expected because this is constrained to meet the criteria of 1) being the principal shopper for the household, 2) somebody who ate table grapes recently, and 3) somebody who’s over 18. And so, compared with the US census, respondents are somewhat more female, somewhat better educated, a little bit richer, a little bit older, and they are from slightly larger families. But they might be well representative of the relevant population for this study.

And so, this is a choice experiment… An example of the kind of scenario that we present…  here are two options, option A is for $1.98 and option B is for $2.98, and each one of them has a randomly drawn combination of other attributes. You need to choose option A or option B, or option C (I don’t want either, I’d rather have nothing than either of them).  

We offer each participant a number of these different scenarios. Eventually, we have enough information so we can sort out how they feel about those different attributes individually and compared with others.

Q: Do you provide the participants with definitions of the breeding technologies? 

A: We first asked them about how they perceive these technologies, and what they know about them, and after we got those answers, then we conducted the choice experiment, and as part of that, we told them what we mean by gene editing and describe the technologies. So, this is later in the process, after we’ve learned about the respondents.

Q: Was there a large percentage of consumers who knew and understood the technologies, because even though I’m in this industry, I would have found it hard to define gene editing and how it differs with GMO’s before I started talking to Brad and getting a clear explanation.

A: We didn’t test their knowledge. It’s self-reporting. The people who think they know all about genetic engineering and gene editing are more receptive to the technologies as safe and natural and ethical. People on the opposite end of the spectrum who know less about the technologies perceive them as unsafe, unnatural, and morally unacceptable.

Q: Did you find that some consumers were against GMOs, but they felt comfortable with gene editing; was there a differentiation that consumers made between the two?

A: Well, that’s a fun question. The real work in this study was to look at gene editing, and we had the questions about GMOs just as a measure of their attitude, trying to gauge people’s perceptions of technologies. In this project, we were very explicitly asking about gene editing, not about GMOs.

During the presentation, I’ll go into much more depth analyzing the study conclusions, but to summarize the results:  What we set out to do is estimate willingness to pay for a selection of quality attributes, and this is all in green table grapes, and these attributes could be introduced using one of two alternative breeding methods, either conventional breeding or gene editing.

We measured the premium for these enhanced attributes and ranked them. The highest (1) was sweetness followed by (2) crispness, (3) fruity flavor, (4) larger berries and (5) more uniform color. This ranking of premium attributes is the same for the two breeding methods. And, as we discussed earlier, we couldn’t find any statistically significant differences in willingness to pay for any of the quality attributes between the two methods.  

Q:  Could that be the punch line for this whole thing?

A: Yes, that’s the punch line, and here’s the bottom line: On average, the answer is we couldn’t measure a significant difference between the breeding technologies, which is good news.  The problem with these technologies is we have some people like me who think they’re wonderful, and other people who think they’re poison, and a broad spectrum in the community.

So, these measures on average are interesting, but the variation within the population is also interesting: what are the different groups like, and what can we say about them?

Q: Is there opportunity for niche marketing here?

A: We’re able to sort the population into four groups based on their perceptions of these technologies. And that was highly correlated to their acceptance of them. So, one implication from this is that, in fact, if people could become better educated, then they might be more likely to have positive attitudes. We haven’t tested this, so it may just be a correlation, but it seems rational.

Q: Let’s just do the scenario that some of these varieties are done with the gene editing, and they’re in the supermarkets. Are consumers going to even know whether they’re gene edited or not? After all, they wouldn’t need to be labeled as such.  

A: Right now, gene edited products don’t have to have a label. There is a law that requires food to be labeled as such if it’s produced using genetic engineering. It’s a relatively new law, and that does not apply to gene edited product.  

It may be the case, however, that if the activist groups are sufficiently opposed, they can find out. It may be difficult though. You can’t find out just from looking at the grapes. You can’t just look at the genome and say we can tell if this is from gene editing rather than conventional breeding. So, it’s an intriguing question, whether they would know.  Maybe people at the breeding level will know and be willing to say whether they’re using gene editing.

Q: I think Brad might have suggested that it could be a situation where growers or suppliers might highlight that their product was produced without gene editing or might market it that way.

A: It could be something like that. Brad makes a good point. There very well could be people who will find a way to make money by pointing out that their products are not produced using gene-editing.

Before we had the current labeling requirement for GMOs, there was something called the non-GMO project (which still exists), and people could get certified and label their products as non-GMO certified. And they might opt to extend that so only grapes developed using conventional breeding could qualify for that label.  

Organic consumers could opt to reject gene-editing. I think the organic advocates were crazy to say no to GMOs, because if you have GMOs, you can avoid a lot of pesticides, which is what organic people really want to do.  

Q: That’s an interesting thought…

Going forward, will there be a VitisGen3? What’s the next step for you? Do you have related research projects on the horizon…?

Q: Well, first I have to finish the work under VitisGen2. I hope I’ll be able to complete that sometime this year. One of my ideas is to talk with people in Bakersfield about some of that information. And who knows where that will go.

I’ve been in conversation with some people in the industry about doing some work privately, if you like, so within the industry to learn more about these issues. There could be a VitisGen3. So, there are projects in the wind, some that will be done by others. I think it’s very much in the interest of the industry, particularly the grape industry.

Q: Since we’re in a global industry, how do different markets accept gene editing? How does this effect decision-making to develop these products for global trade?

A: I am going to Italy in November to do a presentation, following previous work there. The grape industry there is asking a lot of the same questions.

Again, it’s a different problem for them. Europe has very much more narrow-minded attitudes and policies toward novel agricultural and food technologies. So, I think there may well be a much less receptive approach to gene editing there than here.

One of the projects to look at is how large those differences may be and what the implications are — whether the Europeans will adopt a different set of rules…

You have to think about how that affects your approach to developing varieties, and what varieties you choose to grow depending on where they’re to be sold. I will be curious to know what the producers in Chile and Peru are doing. I think they’re basically growing the same kinds of varieties as the U.S.  

Q: This is a dynamic, interesting topic that you bring up. Everything could work out great to develop gene-edited grape varieties for the US market, but then they have these varieties that might not be approved for export to certain countries…  

A: Right. And does it make sense for the grape industry in Peru and Chile to grow gene-edited product exclusively for the U.S. or other Northern Hemisphere markets…

This is the first research I’ve seen that’s looked at this question in the context of table grapes. And so, it really is preliminary work. There is more work that we would like to do with the supply chain, and to learn more about how the market intermediaries perceive these questions, and how that affects their willingness to stock products.  

We haven’t been very successful in changing people’s attitudes to genetically engineered products.

Q: Well, there’s also the argument that maybe most consumers are fine with the technology or indifferent, but impassioned anti-GMO groups make impressionable waves in the media, etc.

A: That’s exactly the problem. It may be that growers are very happy to grow the product, at a price that consumers are very happy to pay.

That’s one of the stories that we’re seeing. A lot of regulation is being imposed by the middlemen nowadays, separate from government regulations.  So that’s a real issue we want to pursue that’s not part of this consumer-focused research. Originally, we were going to do other surveys, and talk to the breeding industry, to the market intermediaries, and we really want to talk to Costco, Walmart, Safeway and other retailers to have their perceptions of the story.

Q: Yes, it would be strategically important to understand perceptions from the retail side.

A: I have a perfect example. In the supermarket, all the cartons of milk say the milk is made with milk from cows, not treated with recombinant bovine somatotropin. [also known as bovine growth hormone (bST), an animal drug approved by FDA to increase milk production in dairy cows].

Science says there’s no difference between milk from cows with rbST, but you can’t find any milk in the supermarket without that label. I can’t buy milk from cows with rbST obviously.

And that’s exactly the phenomena we’re talking about with the retailers. Dairy companies and retailers decided it wasn’t in their interest; it wasn’t worth trying to market that milk and having the backlash. Whether it’s a very small minority or not, having activist groups in the supermarkets and disparaging them, it wouldn’t help anybody from their point of view. So, they just choose not to stock it.  

Q: Those are critical lessons that linger, as the grape industry navigates the innovative paths forward. You’ve jumpstarted a dynamic discussion, as key stakeholders gather for the upcoming Global Grape Summit. Thank you for participating in the influential and insightful line-up to strategize on a host of important issues facing the industry.


When Cornell’s Brad Rickard presented at The New York Produce Show and Conference, we received calls from some of the most important breeders in the world wanting to follow up on the discussion. It is likely that Professor Alston’s presentation will have similar impact.

For us, we wonder if the industry isn’t underestimating its own abilities to move consumer perception. We think about an apple like Cripps Pink that is also marketed under the Pink Lady brand. We also think of the GMO pineapple that Fresh Del Monte is marketing under the PINKGLOW brand.

It is understandable that breeders would run away from controversy and markets limited by legislation in some countries. That is a business decision. There is an enormous investment in developing varieties and an enormous investment in planting the varieties.

The focus has to be on getting retailers open to advances in new technology. The problem is that a protest over one item can keep consumers away from buying a hundred items, so rarely do retailers show much courage.

We always admired Wegmans for offering irradiated ground beef – a real treat for immunocompromised people, such as those who have had to undergo stem cell transplants and similar procedures.

Genetic engineering can open possibilities more than just allowing for higher yields or improvement in flavor. Take Golden Rice, the development of which basically involved using GMO technology to allow the product to effectively control Vitamin A deficiency, saving millions of lives. Indeed with the pandemic and war in the Ukraine, the problem of Vitamin A deficiency may become more urgent. As recently as the 1990s, more than 20% of global deaths of children under five were due to vitamin A deficiency.

Grapes are a healthy product, but perhaps with more use of technology, new reasons for people to consume grapes could be established.

We are very fortunate to have Professor Alston, the world’s leading expert on these topics, to help us elevate and inform the discussion at the Global Grape Summit.



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