Faith and Science

By refusing to spray pesticides, is Burgundy's Emmanuel Giboulot a hero? Or wine's Jenny McCarthy?
May 1, 2014

Should a biodynamic winegrower be forced to use pesticides against his will? Your answer probably depends on how much faith you put in science.

Emmanuel Giboulot faced that dilemma when flavescence dorée was discovered in a southern part of Burgundy in 2012. Giboulot has cultivated his 24 acres of vines in the Côtes d'Or according to biodynamic principles for decades.

Highly infectious and fatal to vines, flavescence dorée is inflicted by a bacteria that attacks a plant's vascular tissues, causing leaves to yellow and grapes to shrivel. The disease is spread by a leafhopper insect that flits from vineyard to vineyard. Since it appeared in Armagnac in 1949, it has migrated to almost every French wine region.

There is no known cure. Under government directive, when a vineyard is infected, the vines are uprooted and burned. When the scourge appears in a new region, growers are ordered to inspect their property regularly, make sure new vines have been treated to kill leafhopper eggs and spray insecticides to try and keep the leafhoppers at bay. Viticultural scientists compare the threat to phylloxera, the root louse that almost wiped out French wine in the late 1800s.

But when Burgundy authorities issued a call to spray the entire Côte d'Or last summer after having to destroy 30 infected acres in the Mâconnais, Giboulot said non. He argued that just one shower of insecticides would negate years of work. Under biodynamics' holistic approach, he controls pests by attracting their natural predators or by employing pheromones to confuse them and prevent reproduction. Insecticide kills indiscriminately; Giboulot said it would kill bees and interfere with pollination. He believes biodynamics will protect his vines.

The dispute went to court, with Giboulot facing a potential fine of 300,000 euros and six months in jail. Earlier this month, a Dijon tribunal handed down a 1,000-euro fine, but ruled Giboulot only had to pay half, as long as he isn't convicted of another offense in the future. The vigneron has promised he will appeal.

Environmental groups call Giboulot a hero. The French authorities and viticulturists say his refusal to spray is endangering his neighbors. One scientist likened it to refusing to get vaccinated during an epidemic. So is he a hero? Or the Jenny McCarthy of wine?

A century ago, science represented the best hope of mankind. Today, we know all too well that it has limits. Those limits have allowed us to question science when it doesn't fit our opinions. Do you believe mankind is responsible for climate change? How do you feel about the theory of evolution?

Vaccination is another flashpoint. McCarthy and a vociferous group of parents have raised enough questions about whether vaccines are related to autism that some parents now refuse to let doctors inoculate their children. Health professionals worry we may see the reemergence of diseases that had once been virtually eliminated.

With vaccines, the evidence is overwhelming. Repeated studies have shown no correlation with autism. The problem is when science is uncertain. Pesticides are not a silver bullet to defeat flavescence dorée. They are a defense of desperation.

Widespread spraying of pesticides—which are linked to high rates of cancer in French agricultural workers and can damage the ecosystem—reminds me of some radical version of chemotherapy. You're hoping it pushes the threat into remission, but you're gradually poisoning the land to do so.

That said, this is not indiscriminate spraying. The directive called for just one dose. And the spray was pyrethrin, an organic pesticide made from chrysanthemum flowers. It is allowed under organic and biodynamic certifications.

I have spent a lot of time with winegrowers who practice biodynamics. Some believe modern science knows almost nothing about growing grapes and making wine. Others have enology degrees and use science in their daily work, but also believe there is much we don't understand about how the world works and that biodynamics may tap forces we don't comprehend yet.

I sympathize with Giboulot's dilemma, and if his vineyards stood in isolation, I would support his refusal to spray. But in Burgundy, growers often cultivate a few rows in a cru, surrounded by their fellow farmers. Giboulot's 24 acres are in 12 parcels in various spots in the Côte d'Or. Just as everything on a biodynamic farm is interconnected, so is every vineyard in a wine region. Hopefully research will soon find a better defense—something that relies on working with the environment rather than a poison. But as of now, there is no such proven cure.

Phylloxera almost wiped French wine from the earth because many growers resisted the best cure science could devise—grafting French vines onto American rootstock. During that crisis, many growers rebelled when the government asked them to graft. (Ironically, in that situation, they chose ineffective insecticides over rootstocks.) Allowing this new threat a foothold in the heart of Burgundy would be unconscionable.

Environment Vineyard Management Biodynamic Organic Legal and Legislative Issues Appellation Regulations

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