David Laycock

Political scientist David Laycock is one of several SFU researchers who will be investigating public and industry reaction to new genomic-based technologies for producing wine.

Genomics plus winemaking: progress or Frankenwine?

July 24, 2008

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By Diane Luckow

Are winemakers and drinkers ready for new genomic-based technologies that could transform the way grapes are harvested and processed?

SFU political science professors David Laycock, Michael Howlett, Steven Weldon and postdoctoral investigator Andrea Migone are conducting two research projects over the next three years to find out.

The researchers will carry out a Canadian public opinion poll, interviews and documentary analyses to determine the reactions of winemakers and industry regulators to new genomic-based technologies for the Canadian wine industry.

Genomics is the study of all the genes in an organism's entire genome and the interactions among them and their environment, as opposed to genetics which is the study of single genes in isolation. GenomeBC is funding just over two-thirds of the $295,000 research project.

UBC scientists collaborating on the project are studying topics such as whether newly discovered genetic-marker information could be incorporated into a hand-held sensor to determine the best time to harvest grapes.

The SFU researchers will assess the public’s general knowledge and perceptions of genomics as well as the attitudes of regulators in Canada and elsewhere toward genetic marker-assisted technologies for wine production. They’ll also examine the global wine industry to see how its firms adapt, accept and deploy new technologies.

“The concern is that the public is not terrifically up on all of these different techniques,” says Howlett. “Even though they don’t involve genetic manipulation, if people think they do they won’t buy the wine.”

Laycock notes that “the politics of genomic technological applications can be highly confrontational when the issue is consumption of genetically modified foods (GMO) foods. The issue for the Canadian wine industry is: Even if the technologies can be developed and are attractive, will contentious politics emerge with the use of non-GMO genomic technologies, which will then make their use counter-productive?”

Ultimately, says Howlett, the SFU researchers are interested in the implications for policy-making.

“Genomics is a huge area and it isn’t going away. It reminds me of the early Internet days when scientists had no idea what the technological aspects or applications were – they were just cranking out scientific innovations. It took a while for the new developments to penetrate.”

Howlett and Laycock expect that their group’s research will lay the foundation for further projects examining the politics and regulatory dimensions of genomic-marker applications in areas such as monitoring the effects of pollution on fish or more precise tracking of wildlife species and populations.
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