Is there really a green wave in the vineyards?

Published on 2020-06-25

Each year the Office for organic agriculture applauds the rapid progress of conversion to organic.
“The progress is truly remarkable, it’s a green tidal wave”, they tell us.
We could be satisfied with that, but let’s remember the road ahead is still very long.

Each year the dazzling figure put forward is the percentage of increase with respect to the preceding year. In 2018, for example, there were 20% more domains using organic farming methods than in 2017. That should have meant an increase from 5835 to 6726 organic domains, i.e. 890 additional domains. Indeed, that would have been a 20% increase, and it would have been impressive. But 890 new organic domains, out of a total of 85,000 domains in France (figure from the French Comité National des Interprofessions des Vins à appellation d’origine et à indication géographique or CNIV) represents only 1%. Only one percent of all domains converted to organic methods in 2018. At this rate, with 890 conversions per year, it will take 82 years for all domains to change to organic. And this is the best-case scenario, if the rate of conversion does not slow again. Up until now, the progress of organic has been like a roller coaster.

A few years ago, there were only a few hundred organic domains. If I remember correctly, there were about 200 winegrowers using organic methods in 1996. Today there are 6726, i.e., an average of 283 conversions per year. In 2014, there were 170 conversions; in 2017, there were 467. Progress has accelerated, only to slow and then accelerate again. This is the result of a number of factors, including an increase or decrease in subsidies to maintain or convert to organic farming. Today what is really pushing the increase in the number of conversions is consumers’ increasing thirst for healthier wines. Along with that is the new habit of drinking less but better wine, and consumers’ acceptance that ‘better’ wine is a bit more expensive.

The European Community’s push for a reduction in amounts of copper used, however, is likely to slow conversion and maintenance in the organic sector. The same European Community is dragging its feet in banning glysophate. In organic farming, copper is the only product that can be used to fight mildew. The European project to ban use of copper would be a death sentence for a large portion of organic domains.

But what does the organic wine sector actually represent? According to the Office for organic agriculture, there are 6726 organic viticulture domains in France. The CNIV indicates a total of 85,000 domains, so organic domains make up 8% of the total. In terms of hectares, the Office for organic agriculture considers that 12% of vineyards are organically farmed, which seems unlikely since only 8% of all domains are certified organic. But perhaps the Office for organic agriculture also counts vineyards that produce grapes for direct consumption (table grapes).

Finally, the conversion to organic is not a tidal wave, because if we look at the entire agricultural sector (including grape vineyards), organic farming methods are used on only 6.5% of all arable land. Despite these figures, which are intended to be encouraging, the use of phytosanitary products has not diminished. According to the French ministry for the ecological transition and agriculture, there was actually an increase in the use of such products in 2013, as compared with the previous year. “In the three-year period from 2014 to 2016, use of phytosanitary products increased by more than 12% in comparison with 2009-2011.” This significant increase was seen again in 2017, when use increased by 12.4%.
The government thinks this poor performance should be put in context. According to Les Echos newspaper, it claims that, while overall pesticide use has increased, use of the most dangerous substances has in fact decreased: -6% for “CMR (carcinogen, mutagen, reprotoxic) substances in category 1 (substances proven to cause cancer)”. Yet there has also been a 6% increase in the use of “category 2 (substances believed to cause cancer)”. In four years, there has been a 24.4% increase in the use of phytosanitary products. What progress!

And can I pour you a little more phytosanitary product?

Pierre Guigui