A University of Florida researcher, Dennis Gray, is using what he terms “precision breeding” to develop disease-resistant grapes. Powdery mildew and black rot are torment of grape growers, but Gray has successfully bred three varieties that resist these diseases. Thompson Seedless, Seyval Blanc and Syrah are three out of only 35 varieties of grapes that are grown on 66 percent of the world grape acreage.
“The importance of improving grape varieties cannot be overstated,” Gray explains. “A majority of these are centuries old and maintained primarily through a stringently managed system of vegetative propagation. However, these varieties lack other very important traits, particularly durable disease and pest resistance, that are demanded by today’s intensive agricultural conditions.”
Growers currently depend heavily on pesticides and fungicides, especially in areas of high humidity like northern CA, FL or norther Italy. With the general public’s interest in decreasing chemicals Gray says that “precision breeding” is the answer.
Now Gray hopes to develop a grape that is resistant to Pierce’s Disease, which needs “unsustainable mass spraying of pesticides” to stop the insect that carries it. Federal and state governments, mainly in California, have spent more than $50 million in the last 15 years to fight it with little to no success.
Gray also wants to move away from what he calls the scientifically inaccurate and illogical term “genetic modification” to the more accurate “precision breeding,” and inform the public that it is less disruptive than conventional breeding and will finally allow the 35 ancient cultivars grown in most of the world to be genetically improved.
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