How much is too much?

Until relatively recently, wine was assumed to be a natural, healthy product. But testing for pesticides has revealed that chemicals sprayed in the vineyard can appear in the final wine. As consumers become more savvy, says Sophie Kevany, the pressure to abandon pesticides will increase.

Pesticide markets in Europe, 2010 (in €m)
The latest statistics from France’s Union of Plant Protection Industries (UIPP) show that in 2010, measured by euro value, France was the main market for pesticides.

Wine grapes are one of the most highly treated crops on the planet. Data from two of the world’s principal wine growing areas, France and California, indicates­ that wine grapes in both areas are treated with significantly more pesticides than other crops, partly because of the ­nature of vine growth and partly because of the ­weather.

The issue of vineyard pesticides, and their residues in wine, once seen as irrelevant to the industry – mainly thanks to wine’s natural, even healthy aura – is ­moving mainstream. The trend follows growing ­public ­concern over food safety, the chemicals used by the farm industry and the residues they leave in both the environment and the ­human population.­ As a result, consumers, once happy­ to drink a glass of pretty much ­anything with their free-range steaks or ­gluten-free penne all’arrabiata, are now keen to see the chemical-free zone extend from plate to glass.

Levels of use

Figures from pesticide industry group the European Crop Protection Agency (ECPA), whose members include BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont and Monsanto ­Europe, show the world’s second-biggest user of ­pesticides by value to be the US. The first is Brazil and third, fourth and fifth are China, Japan and France.

Translating the US pesticide figure into how much goes onto vineyards can be tricky, as neither the ECPA nor a US equivalent, CropLife America, break out vineyard figures. But given that California produces over 90% of American wines, the state’s vineyard treatment levels can be used as a guideline. The latest report from the Californian Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) says “crops treated with the greatest amount of pesticides in 2012 were wine grape, almond, table and raisin grape, strawberry, and processing tomato.” 

Although the press office for the CDPR said it was perhaps not “meaningful” to ­compare pesticide use among different crops - because each one has different pests, ­different resistance and different ­behavioural patterns according to the weather – their figures show, broadly, that an annual average of 24.9m pounds of pesticides were used on Californian wine grapes from 2008 through 2012, most of which was sulphur. An annual average of 21.6m pounds was used on almonds and 11.4m pounds on strawberries, over the same period. 

In Europe, both lobby groups, the industry and the government concur that France is the biggest user of pesticides, while the ECPA says French vineyards account for ­between 15% and 18% of the members’ annual sales. French anti-pesticide lobby group, Générations Futures (Future Generations), further claims that although French vineyards represent only about 3% to 4% of the total agricultural surface area, they soak up about 20% of annual pesticide use. 

ECPA director Jean-Charles Bocquet agrees that grapes are one of the most protected crops in Europe, but says there are good reasons why. Firstly, vines are perennial. The plants are productive over many years and therefore standard methods used to clear out pests and disease, annual crop rotation and ploughing, are not possible, hence the increased need for chemical ­interventions. Then, he says, there’s the matter of weather, which, in many European regions is very friendly to diseases and pests. 

Hans Muilerman, chemicals officer for anti-pesticide lobby group Pesticides Action Network (PAN) Europe, agrees. He said French and Italian grapes tend to be polluted compared to grapes from Chile or South ­Africa, based on a range of tests carried out by PAN Europe, mainly because southern regions are sunnier, drier and windier.

Happily, there is growing consensus – from governments, pesticide industry representatives, wine growers and anti-pesticide lobbies - that reducing vineyard pesticide usage is a good idea. Common concerns include vineyard worker safety, public sentiment and the environment. In France, one of the first official moves toward pesticide reduction was the launch in 2008 of the government’s Ècophyto plan, which aims to half pesticide use by 2018. In 2012 the government officially recognised­ a link between Parkinson’s ­disease and pesticides, while another national agency­ found a link between pesticides and reduced brain activity in vineyard workers. Since then, either by design or chance, the issue of chemical use by the French wine industry has become a regular news item. 

Recent headlines have included coverage­ of French children being taken to hospital­ after a routine vineyard spraying near their school in Bordeaux and outrage over the fact that an organic grower was fined €1,000.00 ($1,316.00) for refusing to treat his vines with pesticide. That story resulted in a New York Times editorial, ‘Pesticides in French Wine,’ which called for a change to the law that requires growers to spray, saying it “is not only bad policy, it is terrible publicity for French wine.” 

Last year, two studies explored the presence of pesticide residues in wines. The first, published in April 2013 by France’s Institute for Public Health Surveillance (InVS), fingered fermented grape juice as primary sources of chemical residues in the population. The second, by French scientist Pascal Chatonnet, owner of the agricultural and food analysis laboratory, Excell, tested about 300 wines from around France for 50 different chemical substances. ­Chatonnet found 90% had residues of which ‘anti-rot’ fungicides, often applied late in the season, were the most common. 

Chatonnet, along with most of the wine and pesticide industry, believes there are no direct risks to consumers from drinking wines with the post-vinification residue levels he detected. However, he expects ­producers will soon be legally obliged to test their wines for so-called Maximum ­Residue Levels, or MRLs. Bocquet confirmed this, saying that although MRLs already exist for wine grapes, wine MRLs should help ­reassure consumers.

Other efforts to reduce vineyard ­chemical applications include the adoption of ­Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques. Even though no global standards exist as yet, the approach has the combined support of growers, the pesticide industry and anti-pesticide lobby groups. Bocquet says the ECPA is a supporter, so is Générations Futures, while California has emerged as a world leader for IPM wine grape production, says Paul Verke of the CDPR.

IPM essentially seeks to reduce pesticide use by helping growers understand pest and disease development cycles so they can make more targeted interventions, ­using fewer pesticides. “When growers know the lifecycle of the pest, they know what ­pesticide to apply and when to apply it, plus they can spot-spray, rather than ­having to spray the whole vineyard,” explained ­Matthew Hoffman, grower program coordinator at California’s Lodi Winegrape Commission. 

The Lodi area is where Robert Mondavi grew up, and it was here that Hoffman’s predecessor, Dr Cliff Ohmart, led the writing of the first IPM guide, The Lodi Winegrower’s Workbook, published in 2000. IPM practices include monitoring of vines, with written records of activity, and allowing grass and clover to grow between the vines to both reduce the need for herbicides and increase grape quality thanks to natural competition and better soil quality. Sexual confusion is also used to lower pest reproduction rates, and natural predators such as owls are ­encouraged to reduce rodent populations.

Organic becomes trendy

The rise of organic wines is also reducing pesticide use. In France the surface area of organically grown wine grapes ­(either ­currently certified or in conversion) rose 190% to 65,421 ha in 2013, from 22,500 ha in 2007, according to Agence BIO. The agency has also seen a 166% increase in sales of wine made from organic grapes, worth €503m in 2013, ­compared to €189m in 2005. 

The latest available figures from the ­California Department of Food and ­Agriculture (CDFA) show the number of acres planted with certified organic wine grapes has risen almost 22% to 10,127 in 2012, from 8,301 in 2009. 

French-born, San Francisco-based organic wine retailer Veronique Raskin has lived the trend. She imported and sold the first French organic wine labelled as such in America, La Bousquette. The vineyard was her grandfather’s and she brought in about 1,000 cases in the 1980s. Back then selling wine was a side line to her day job and she said wine shops laughed at her and told her customers didn’t care what was in the wine. Raskin persevered, however, and she is now the full-time owner of The Organic Wine Company, selling about 5,000 cases a year. She says the company has really taken off in the last 10 years and her primary ­customers are people who have been eating organic food, but hadn’t till now considered their wine.

Chemical cocktails

The issue of organic versus traditional vineyards can itself be contentious, however, given that both are often treated with the three most-used substances in vine disease control: sulphur powder, copper ­sulphate and copper hydroxide. 

Detractors say organic vineyards can be just as bad for the environment; ­copper ­compounds, for example, can be toxic. ­Supporters say that while copper and ­sulphur are not ideal, organic farmers strive to limit their use, replacing them, where ­possible, with natural pest and disease control methods, including herbal treatments and essential oils. Plus, they say, copper and sulphur are at least known quantities, despite their drawbacks, and less risky than more ­modern pesticides, some of which ­contain ­endocrine disruptors. They add that organic wines avoid the ‘residue cocktail’ that can be found in traditionally produced wines. 

The issues of endocrine disruptors and the cocktail are of particular importance, lobby groups believe. Firstly because there is a risk that endocrine disruptors are more dangerous in smaller doses – making MRLs pointless in this respect. And secondly, they say the effect on humans of the interactions between many different chemical residues in wine and foods plus their accumulation in our bodies, is unknown. All such issues, they add, are under-researched.

“We get hundreds of chemicals fed into our bodies every day, so combination and ­accumulation are both problems. We know almost nothing about these chemical ­cocktails, which are not accounted for in the current health standards,” PAN’s Muilerman said. Endocrine disruptors identified by PAN Europe from the list of residues Chatonnet tests for include bifenthrin, iprodione, as well as “some of the ‘azoles’ group, including cyproconazole,” said Muilerman, while some of the wines tested by Chatonnet showed traces of up to nine different molecules.

One of the reasons these chemical ­cocktails are not as yet taken into account by current health standards, said PAN Europe in a report called ‘A Poisonous Injection’ published earlier this year, is smart industry lobbying against updates to current standards. This, they say, is due to the placement of industry-linked experts within key ­public health groups such as the World Health ­Organisation and the European Food Safety Authority. 

In short, Muilerman said, if you can’t trust the standards and you can reduce chemical intake by drinking organic wines, why not go for it? Because, just like the bees suffering from colony collapse, “we have numerous negative health influences and the combination is likely our biggest problem.”

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