Chemical winefare: Pesticides in wine

Linda Johnson Bell

18 November 2019

As the number of alleged pesticide-related illnesses and deaths mount, Linda Johnson-Bell argues the case for the organic, biodynamic and safer future of winemaking


In March of this year, the Bordeaux High Court acknowledged that Sylvie Berger’s Parkinson’s disease was work-related and held Medoc’s Château Vernous, her employer since 2003, responsible.

James-Bernard Murat died of lung cancer in 2012 after spraying his Bordeaux vineyards for 40 years with a substance that is now banned, according to reports. His cancer was confirmed to be 'linked to his profession’. Denis Bibeyran, after 24 years of applying pesticides to his employer’s grape vines, died of bile duct cancer in 2009 at the age of 47. His sister is still fighting his corner.

These are just a few high-profile court cases surrounding wine and pesticide use, and all are related to industry workers. Now there are cases being brought by local communities and schools. In May 2019, two wine producers in Villeneuve, in the Libournais, were acquitted over the spraying of chemicals next to a school. Château Escalette, owned by Catherine Verges, the mayor of Villeneuve, and Château Castel la Rose in the Côtes de Bourg, were accused of spraying fungicides on their vineyards during high winds, though the court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.

In January, in response to this increasing public scrutiny, the Château Clément-Pichon announced that it was advancing its plans to convert to organic farming due to mounting tensions over the construction of a new school being built nearby. Isabella Saporta, in her book Vino Business, tells us about a boulangère who has lived 150 metres from a vineyard for 25 years. Marie-Hélène agreed to participate in a hair analysis study and was shocked when the results showed three pesticides, two endocrine disruptors and a carcinogen in her system. When she went public with the findings, many in the community boycotted her bakery.

Despite evidence, industry insiders continue to deny the dangers of glyphosate and other chemicals

This comes after a 2015 report by a group of French health agencies found that use of pesticides on vineyards 'cannot be excluded’ as a reason for high rates of child cancer in Sauternes. Isn’t anything being done? Well, yes. For one, the French government launched the Ecophyto plan in 2008 to reduce the overall use of pesticides. However, last year, the government was moved to launch a new plan after pesticide use was shown to have increased 12% between 2014 and 2016.

At the launch of Ecophyte 2+, President Emmanuel Macron urged a ban of glyphosate, only to renege on this promise in January because farmers say that there is no alternative to the herbicide that is both economically viable and environmentally friendly. But Toby Bekkers, an Australian organic viticulturist, confirms that there are six other weed-control options: mechanical weeding, mowing, mulching, grazing, steam/flame and manipulation of the weed population. Each of these may have a few downsides, such as being slower or using more fuel, but these seem minimal compared to potentially causing cancer.

AN OPEN SECRET

It would be unfair to present this as a uniquely French problem. It isn’t. It’s everywhere – if you can find it. Some feel secrecy is equally pandemic. As anti-pesticide activist Marie-Lys Bibeyran (sister of Denis Bibeyran) says: ‘Nothing filters through in Bordeaux. Everything is taboo. Everything is opaque. 'If you look for her 'blacklist’ of wine-producing châteaux in the Médoc on the French Collectif Info Médoc Pesticide site, you won’t find it – it has been deleted.

Further, Les Dossiers wrote in 2017 that a report from the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety analysing the impact of pesticides on agricultural workers was 'edited’ for its planned release before being cancelled entirely. So what do things look like across the pond? According to the California Department of Health, breast cancer rates in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties are 10%-20% higher than the national average, and Napa County has the highest cancer rate for children in California. Last year, a Californian judge ruled that the cancer warning label on the weed killer Roundup, which has glyphosate as its main ingredient, doesn’t have to be included, though the state still lists the herbicide as 'probably carcinogenic’.

In 2018, consumer group Moms Across America released research revealing that 10 major California wines contained glyphosate. Recently, the US Public Research Group (US PIRG) Education Fund tested 20 products – 5 wines and 15 beers – and found traces of the herbicide in 19. Tested wines included Beringer, Barefoot and Sutter Home. However, industry insiders deny the dangers of glyphosate and other chemicals.

Splashed across the Wine Institute’s website is a quote by Dr Carl Winter from University of California, Davis: ‘Wine as a source of glyphosate should not be of concern. An adult would have to drink more than 140 glasses of wine a day over 70 years containing the highest glyphosate level measured to reach the level that California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has identified as "no significant risk level’’.’ He isn’t arguing that there may not be a cancer risk – just that there isn’t a risk at the levels found in the amount of wine we drink. What is not factored in, however, is the cumulative dose of glyphosate through every foodstuff that is farmed with it.

The Wine Institute’s opinion clashes with a February 2019 report by the US PIRG, which states: 'While these levels of glyphosate are below EPA risk tolerances for beverages, it is possible that even low levels of glyphosate can be problematic. For example, in one study, scientists found that one part per trillion of glyphosate has the potential to stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells and disrupt the endocrine system.

PLANET ORGANIC

With so much controversy on the issue, it does, happily, seem that the wine industry is starting to play it safe. The 2019 Global Sustainable, Organic and Lower Alcohol Report from Wine Intelligence states that 'the tide is rising for all alternative wines’. The total organic area under vine has increased by 234% since 2007, and surpassed 400,000ha in 2017 (IWSR Drinks Market Analysis 2018). Organic wine and its siblings are no longer merely a trend.

They are now mainstream, if not premium, products, and the hippie image has been put to rest.

THE DISCONNECT

With 25 years as a wine writer, and with 12 of those years spent in French vineyards, I never connected any of the dots regarding pesticide use. How was I so easily distracted by all of those sexy conversations on terroir, indigenous yeasts and planting densities? With hundreds of winery visits under my belt, how did I miss the sprayers? Why didn’t I ask the important questions?

Nicolas Joly, one of the godfathers of biodynamic wines, passionately argues that the disconnect began with the West’s adoption of Descartes’ Cartesian education, which teaches that the mind is separate from the body: 'We lost our connection to nature and adopted an automated way of thinking.’ With the 22 different permitted additives or 'tastes', today’s wines are artificial, he argues, and 'cut off from all links to the soil’.

In such a sterile mindset, coupled with the aftermath of World War II, the arrival of agro-chemical farming was inevitable. The post-WWII 'Green Revolution’ was anything but, and took us further away from nature. Industrial agriculture destroys the water-holding capacity of soil, which then means it needs irrigation, which then makes the crops more vulnerable to climatic changes. It creates monocultures which ruin biodiversity, and biodiversity is essential for any agricultural system to work properly. What’s more, chemical fertilisers destroy the living processes of soil. But the wine industry, like the world’s staple crops, succumbed to the promise of greater productivity and profit. And crop chemical giants such as Bayer – which last year purchased Roundup developer Monsanto – were happy to oblige.

So what does this mean for vineyard owners, workers and wine drinkers? Winegrowing has become hard work in today’s fast-changing social, economic and environmental climate. As long as the agro-chemical market is dominated by cheap, yield-enhancing chemicals, it’s difficult for producers to adopt organic practices, and it’s too easy to continue on the path of least resistance to ensure maximum profits, especially when all the neighbours are doing the same. It also further distances the consumer from the product, diminishing their control over what they both purchase and ingest.

THE WAY FORWARD

Now, though, is not the time to write up blacklists or start an inquisition. It’s time to find the courage to change. Joly places his faith in change in a new generation of consumers who are asking the right questions. This groundswell is hindered, however, by the tangled mess of quasi-public/private certifications, wine categories and marketing jargon that differ from country to country.

Like the world’s staple crops, the wine industry succumbed to the promise of greater productivity and profit

Ideally, but impractically, there would be flexible universal, international regulations to create a level economic playing field. Transitioning to organic and biodynamic farming can initially create smaller yields and everyone has to be on the same ledger page. There needs to be a 'map’, too: Is 'sustainable’ the umbrella under which all other farming practices should fall? How do they overlap? What incentives can we offer organic producers for economic viability? A good start is to have mandatory ingredient lists on bottle labels. We all want to know if our chicken is corn fed, our vegetables organic and our eggs free range, so why not give the same care to what we drink?

There has to be a public-awareness campaign on this topic. Consumers must have accurate information in order to decide what they put in their mouths. But can this be done in a world where the European Commission calls its pesticides department the 'plant protection products’ bureau? In the book Water Wars, Dr Vandana Shiva is emphatic that 'the solution for the climate crisis, the food crisis, and the water crisis under which the world is reeling is the same: biodiversity-based organic farming systems’. When we are presented with a bottle of wine with a gorgeous label in a busy restaurant as we laugh with friends, it is easy to forget that the contents of the bottle started out as fruit, on a vine, in soil. It is easy to forget that it is a gift of nature. It is only when we connect with this basic truth that we will understand the point of protecting it – and ourselves.

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