By Barbara Kessler

Apparently conventional farming techniques aren’t too grape for vineyard keepers in the Midwest. Their tender fruit withers when it comes into contact with a commonly used herbicide, called 2, 4-D, that is spread on corn and other field crops to control broadleaf weeds.

So researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a new grape that can stand up to 2, 4-D (or R2D2 if you’re playing Star Wars).

This new improved grape – imperially named “Improved Chancellor” — does not die when confronted with 2, 4-D (the D stands for Dichlorophenoxyacetic) because it has been genetically altered with an added bacterium that breaks down the herbicide, according to an Environmental News Service release.

So happily, nearby crop farmers will be able to continue to use the weed killer, which was introduced in 1946 and is by some accounts the most common herbicide in the world. And grape farmers can co-exist nearby because they can grow a grape that’s genetically engineered to resist the chemical poison.

This development has the potential to “salvage the wine and grape industry in the Midwest,” says one of the plant biologists, Robert Skirvin, who helped develop the new uber grape.

Currently, the regular grapes just can’t survive the pesticide blow-by; it takes just 1/100th of the amount of 2, 4-D typically sprayed on corn to kill those existing Midwestern grapes, Skirvin told the ENS.

He hopes that the new grape will be test grown in about five years, but first, the researchers will need permission to grow it outside because it is genetically modified.

Of course, this whole problem has another potential solution: U.S. farmers could grow their corn and other field crops organically, without pesticides. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that organic farming is growing, but it remains less than 1 percent of U.S. cropland according to the USDA’s up-to-the-minute 2005 numbers.

Some of the forces driving increased production of organic row crops include dairy farmers’ need to feed organic grain to their dairy cows to retain organic certification for their milk, and consumer demand for organic bread, pasta and other grain-based foods.

Consumer demand has been higher, however, for organically grown produce, where much more of the agricultural land is being devoted to organic practices, according to the USDA.

(Dichlorophenoxycetic acid, by the way, is commonly found in many lawn weed killers. Moral: Picnic before treating the grass.)

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