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Beyond glyphosate: French vineyards shift away from controversial weedkiller

France 24 | Winegrower Bertrand Guindeuil at the Paris Agriculture Fair on February 25.

France’s wine industry can become “the first in the world without glyphosate”, President Emmanuel Macron said Saturday at the Paris Agriculture Fair. But is foregoing the controversial herbicide possible? FRANCE 24 spoke with vintners.

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At France’s largest, if temporary, farm – the country’s annual agricultural fair, held at Porte de Versailles exhibition grounds on the southern rim of Paris – it was barely 10am on Monday and Xavier Martin was already enjoying a glass of red wine.

At a stand showcasing his wine from Irouléguy in the Basque country, the 58-year-old had just polished off a fried egg and a slice of grilled bacon. “Wine, I was born in it,” the fifth-generation winegrower says. A salon jury had just rewarded his 2017 Mignaberry rosé with a gold medal.

Martin, who gave up on synthetic herbicides 20 years ago, feels strongly about glyphosate. “We must keep our soils clean, just as we received them from our ancestors, to pass them on to our children,” the bearded vintner says.

“These grounds will outlive us. We must work to preserve them.”

>> Read more: Glyphosate, the issue poisoning Macron's government

'More work'

But making France the first glyphosate-free winemaking nation poses a significant challenge for the sector, which uses a lot of chemical agents to protect its plants, according to the Générations Futures environmental group.

Nevertheless, Martin is convinced it's possible. “It is all a matter of will,” he offers.

“Sure, it means more work. You have to get out more to clean the vines and get started early in the morning.” Between April and September, the now-retired Martin says, he would spend 130 hours a year weeding his vineyard’s 6 hectares with a trimmer strapped to his back.

“It took me three hours every morning to do 50 kilometres over four months,” he says. “It didn’t kill me.”

This determined “anti-glypho” winegrower reckons there are alternatives to help vintners turn the corner, like better equipment to work the soil without assailing the vines themselves. “Today, one can use backpack string trimmers, tillers, hydraulic-motor tractors … The cost ranges from €15,000 to €20,000,” he says. “It’s a purchase that can be made in a group. It’s a chance to get back to certain more human relations and techniques.”

A few rows over at the Paris Agriculture Fair, vintner Laurent Réglat, from Bordeaux’s Château de Teste, invested €19,000 for his plough. But he dismisses the notion of purchasing equipment collectively. “It’s a machine we all use at the same time of year, so it is pointless to buy it as a group,” says Réglat, who made the decision to forego glyphosate from the start of this year. Although he noticed the product's effectiveness was diminishing as plants developed a resistance to it, the Bordeaux winegrower describes his choice as more practical than ideological. “We are required to make the change, but I'm not pleased at all about wasting my time cleaning the vines,” says Réglat, who owns a 20-hectare vineyard.

Nevertheless, the two winegrowers feel the sector is making progress on the use of synthetic chemicals, deemed potentially carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Martin doesn’t doubt their toxicity; people around him have had sterility issues, and when his vintner uncle died of leukaemia two years ago, “The doctors said his illness was linked to the use of phytosanitary products.”

With France slated to ban the use of glyphosate by 2021, winemakers are already making arrangements. Jean-Marie Fabre, the secretary general of the Independent Vintners of France trade association, told France Info that the transition is already under way in the country’s winegrowing sector, with “41 percent of firms already certified (either as organic or as "High Environmental Value, level 3") with another 40 percent of firms on track to be certified”.

>> Read more: Paul François, the French farmer taking on Monsanto

Image change

Martin, for his part, also sees the process as an opportunity to change the image of winegrowers in France. “We were often told that we were the [biggest] polluters on the planet,” he says.

In the alleyways of the Paris Agriculture Fair, glyphosate die-hards are scarce.

“Those who refuse to drop glyphosate are between 50 and 55 years old and don’t see themselves adding to their workload,” says Patrice Fortune of Burgundy’s Domaine de Saint-Roch.

There are also some technical constraints to consider, in particular the challenges of a given terrain. “Be they very steep or very pebbly, some hillsides don’t lend to mechanisation,” says Fortune. “That’s the case for my best vines, which are on the steepest hillsides.” The 48-year-old thinks it will be impossible to forego glyphosate on that hectare, even though he stopped using it on the rest of his 12-hectare vineyard.   

Carbon footprint

But some in the industry still have their doubts about the efficacy of winegrowing without pesticides. “Some compensate for the herbicide by using mechanical equipment, which consumes 90,000 litres of fuel oil a day,” says Bordeaux’s Réglat. “We get rid of glyphosate to protect the environment, but in exchange we increase our carbon footprint. That truly bothers me,” the vintner adds.

For some winegrowers climate is also a factor, notably in Aquitaine, an area of southwest France that gets no less than 1,400 mm of precipitation every year. As a result, parasitic fungi like downy mildew spread quickly and are apt to affect production. “Glyphosate allows that sort of damage to be avoided because it eradicates weeds rapidly,” Bordeaux vintner Bertrand Guindeuil says. From that perspective, it isn’t surprising that Gironde, a department in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region that includes Bordeaux, consumes the second-highest volume of glyphosate in France per hectare of cultivated surface.

Faced with such challenges, winegrowers deplore what they see as a lack of political will. “To be rid of glyphosate, we need more subsidies,” says Guindeuil, who doesn’t use herbicide on two-thirds of his vineyard. “Ecology in general needs more aid."

“But the [EU's] Common Agricultural Policy is not at all suited to the task,” says Martin, the Basque Country vintner. “Today, you receive subsidies based on the surface of your vineyard. But it is by using glyphosate that you can extend your vineyard by 30 percent,” he says.

“It’s the world gone upside-down. Help must go to those who want to end their reliance on glyphosate.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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