Why is ‘conventional’ viticulture also expensive?

Published on 2019-02-25

Because it also pollutes the environment.

First of all, I would like to say that I do not in any way condemn winemakers who use conventional methods. Individually, they are doing all they can to produce the best possible wine and sell it on a competitive market.
I hear people say, and I read in magazines and on the internet, that organic viticulture is a source of pollution, and it’s expensive. It’s true. Well, it’s more or less true. In fact, it’s complicated.
The fact that organic agriculture pollutes the environment because it uses copper, for example, does not mean that conventional methods do not also pollute. Generally speaking, producers using organic methods consume 4 kg of copper per year. In biodynamic production, the amount is 3 kg. But conventional methods also use copper: an average of 1.5 kg per year.
Claiming that the synthetic chemical products used in addition to copper in conventional production are not dangerous is simply not true. Some molecules, such as Dithianon, are associated with potassium phosphonate and are classified H351 (may cause cancer), H400 (highly toxic for aquatic organisms), H410 (highly toxic for aquatic organisms, causes harmful long-term effects). And this is just one example...

But let’s get back to production costs.
Organic production costs more because yield is lower, and it is more labour-intensive. Conventional production may cost less for the producer, but its ‘externality’, or environmental cost, should also be taken into account. We now know that France is Europe’s second largest user of phytosanitary products: approximately 66,660 tons per year, i.e. two kilos per second. Viticulture uses 20% of this amount, though it represents only 3.4% of useable agricultural lands.
In addition, according to Europol spokesperson Søren Pedersen, 5% to 10% of phytosanitary products are sold on the black market. Counterfeit products and illegal trade are the reason we are still finding products that have been banned for decades in our foods and in nature.
We are now told that the products used today are not dangerous. I’ve been hearing that for 25 years. Yet each year hundreds of products are banned, often with a ban-by date far in the future. And a waiver can always be requested. According to the most recent report available (dating back to October 2015) from the Comité permanent pour les plantes, les animaux et l’alimentation (committee that delivers these waivers), France has obtained 19. In Europe, France is second only to Spain (27 waivers). In 2016, a total of 120 waivers were granted in 20 of the European Union’s 28 countries.

The cost of water pollution
A single gram of pesticide is enought to pollute a stream 1-meter wide and 1-meter deep, over a distance of 10 km!
How much does it cost to remove nitrate pollution? The answer is: 70 euros per kilogramme, and 60,000 euros per kilogramme for pesticides.
According to a report published in 2011 by the Commissioner-General for Sustainable Development, the total cost of treating pollution related to agriculture and animal-raising (nitrates and pesticides in our water) may be more than 54 billion euros per year. The total cost for removing pollution from underground water supplies may be more than 522 billion euros (theoretical cost).

The cost of endocrine disruptors
A series of scientific studies published in 2015 in the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism showed that the exposure of European populations to endocrine disruptors is the cause of numerous pathologies that cost society between 150 and 260 billion euros per year (i.e., between 1.2% and 2% of GDP). According to the results presented, organophosphorous and organochlorine pesticides caused the most harm. The direct costs (health care, medical treatments, etc.) and indirect costs (loss of productivity, absenteism, etc.) of syndromes and illnesses attributed to these substances amount to at least 120 billion euros per year in Europe, and that is the low estimate.

The cost of air pollution
According to WHO estimations published in March 2014, nearly 3.7 million people died prematurely in 2012 because of exposure to air pollution. Some think more than half of this pollution is caused by agriculture.

Yet few know that “the chemical industry, which accounts for 28% of all net energy consumption in manufacturing (not including naphta), is the most energy-intensive manufacturing sector, ahead of metallurgy, agrifood industries and the production of other non-metallic mineral products. The chemical industry consumed 16.6 million TOE (tonnes of oil equivalent) in 2014, a 9% increase over 2013. Of this net consumption, 62% is for raw materials, while the rest corresponds to energy (manufacturing, production of electricity, heating and other uses).” Source: France Chimie, federation of professional organisations in the chemicals sector.

Agriculture’s increasing dependence on chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides also makes the sector more dependent on oil. Remember that viticulture uses 20% of this amount, though it represents only 3.4% of useable agricultural lands.

So there you have it—those are the costs that are not included in your bottle of ‘conventional’ wine.

Pierre Guigui