French President Emmanuel Macron wants to eliminate the weed killer glyphosate from France within three years, and he is encouraging winemakers, in particular, to take the lead. Speaking at the Paris Agricultural Show Feb. 23, Macron said, "I believe we can create the first wine region in the world without glyphosate."
That's a bold statement considering how widespread the herbicide is in modern farming. And it comes as the chemical and wine are once again in the news together. A recent study by an American nonprofit advocacy group found traces of glyphosate in beer, wine and cider. Although the levels were far, far below all U.S. and E.U. food-safety standards, the test results show the pervasiveness of glyphosate and have added to consumer concerns.
Is a trace of glyphosate a trace too much?
Few agrochemicals stir emotions as strongly as glyphosate. The primary ingredient in Roundup and other herbicides, it is the most widely used weed killer in the world, worth $4.75 billion in annual sales. It has also become a lightning rod for activists.
On Feb. 25, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) Education Fund released the findings of a study it commissioned that tested beer, wine and hard cider brands for glyphosate. Out of 20 alcoholic drinks, including five wines, 19 showed traces of glyphosate, even the organic wines and beers.
All of the levels of glyphosate were significantly below levels the EPA considers unsafe in beverages. An average-sized man would need to drink 44 bottles a day of the wine with the highest recorded levels of glyphosate to exceed the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s proposed recommended daily allowances, which are stricter than the EPA’s. And some scientists have questioned the methodology of the PIRG study.
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U.S. PIRG acknowledged in its report that the amounts in the beverages were relatively low compared to levels found in common foods like cereal. Similar studies have found glyphosate in organic whole wheat bread, cereals, crackers and ice cream. Because the chemicals can drift in the air and enter water supplies via airborne soil particles, they’re widespread.
A Monsanto scientist discovered that glyphosate had herbicidal properties in 1970. The company, purchased by Bayer AG last year, is also a major producer of genetically engineered crop seeds, designed to resist glyphosate. This means growers can spray Roundup and other glyphosate-based sprays on their fields to kill weeds without destroying their crops. It is widely sprayed by farmers on corn, soybeans, wheat and oats. Cereal producers use it as a drying agent so they can harvest sooner. Winegrowers use it to kill the weeds at the base of the vines to prevent them from taking nutrients from the vines.
But Roundup isn't just for farming; it's a cheap and effective way to keep train tracks, playgrounds and roadways tidy. However, some weeds have grown resistant, leading to heavier applications. Glyphosate is now used in more than 160 countries, with more than 1.4 billion pounds applied per year, according to Monsanto. That's believed to be why traces are found in organic and sustainably grown vineyards, where vintners don’t use synthetic herbicides.
Monsanto has long claimed that its product was safe, but environmental activists and some scientists have disputed that. There are two questions: Is glyphosate unsafe for farm workers exposed to high doses? And is it unsafe for consumers exposed to trace amounts in the food they eat?
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic in humans.” But the EPA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have both declared that glyphosate is likely not carcinogenic. A 2018 study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health monitored more than 50,000 American farm workers for more than 10 years and found no evidence of higher cancer rates. (Scientists at the EFSA questioned the IARC's methodology, while environmental groups have expressed concern that agro-chemical industry lobbying may have influenced government agencies.)
In 2018, a California court ordered Bayer-Monsanto to pay $78.6 million in a case where the jury found that Roundup was the cause of cancer in a school groundskeeper and that the company had tried to hide the risks. (A judge reduced the damages to $78 million, and Monsanto has appealed the decision.) The company faces some 11,000 lawsuits.
As for evidence of harm to consumers, government agencies have ruled that small amounts in food are perfectly safe. But that hasn’t satisfied environmental groups that argue that we don’t know the effects of long-term consumption.
An ambitious French plan
Whether or not glyphosate is a health risk, many consumers are concerned. The city of Paris banned glyphosate in 2015. Macron wants France to lead the way to a glyphosate-free planet, and he's willing to take on the agrochemical industry and his European neighbors to do so.
His efforts are part of a wider campaign for a "European Renaissance," published in newspapers in all 28 member countries last week. He's pushing for E.U. reforms like cyber-security, protection for democracies from foreign meddling, a common policy on asylum and immigration, an E.U. minimum wage, a food-safety force and a European Climate Bank. The European Climate Bank would finance a transition to "zero carbon by 2050 and pesticides halved by 2025."
He's already won some ground against glyphosate. In 2017, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and many E.U. member governments wanted to re-authorize the use of glyphosate for 10 years. The French fought back, and slashed the approval to five years. "We want to get out of glyphosate as rapidly as possible, in three years," said Macron. "This is an opportunity for a number of sectors to evolve profoundly."
It wasn't by accident that the French president decided to shine the spotlight on winegrowers. Wine is a symbol of French culture. What’s more, the country's winegrowers have been moving toward using zero herbicides for years now. They do this by working the soil mechanically or manually, both of which are more expensive. (By comparison, angry wheat farmers, who are more dependent on glyphosate, heckled Macron at the Agricultural Show.)
More than 40 percent of French independent winegrowers are certified organic or environmentally sustainable, and another 40 percent are working toward that. In St.-Emilion the appellation rules forbid the use of blanket herbicides.
Macron lauded the winegrowers' "effort, innovation and will to mobilize," and promised that the French research institute INRA would find new, greener solutions.
But going completely glyphosate-free may be more challenging. Bernard Artigue, president of the Gironde Chamber of Agriculture and winegrower in the Entre-Deux-Mers told Wine Spectator that roughly 15 percent of French vineyards have no immediate technical solution for abandoning Roundup. One reason he gave was the steepness of the slopes, which makes it difficult to manage weeds by hand or by machine. "President Macron said we will leave glyphosate, but he also said we'd look for substitutions,” said Lartigue. “Three years doesn't seem possible to me. We don't currently have a substitute molecule."
For growers who need help making the shift away from Roundup, the Gironde Chamber of Agriculture is offering a program. The Bordeaux wine trade group, the CIVB, also runs a program through its technical commission to support growers.
The challenge is colossal, but Macron likens glyphosate to asbestos. "Glyphosate, there's no report that says it's innocent," said Macron. "In the past, we said asbestos isn't dangerous. And the leaders who allowed it to continue, they had to answer for that." Macron believes French winegrowers could lead the way.