Ξ April 6th, 2008 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology |
On March 26th Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe issued a press release showing the discovery of synthetic insecticide and fungicide residues in a selection of 40 bottles of wine bought within the EU. Since the release I’ve read several related media and wine world offerings, although I don’t believe any of the single articles covered the range and implications of the topic and most disappointed me on the lack of detail and interpretation.
- WineCountry.co.za provides a sensational headline “South African Wine poisonous” (ironic since the only South African wine in the study had only trace levels of anything remotely dangerous), is light on detail, suggests a “storm in a teacup” but finishes on an optimistic tone about how the S.A. industry will improve.
- Jamie Goode shows the good research and offers some reasonable comments, although his summary plays down the importance of the findings and only looks at consumer side of the story.
- Wine Business International provides a light summary of the story and is a balanced mainstream view on the topic.
The use and issues of agrochemicals in the wine industry is not a new story, in 2002 the ATF started testing wines for these materials and California has had its own lobby group, CATs, since 1982 but this goes further back than that. In 1969 Champagne producer Jacques Beaufort needed medical treatment for an allergy to synthetic chemicals and 18 months later he stopped using pesticides on his family vines and started a practice of alternative methods for viticulture and vinification. The French site Grains Nobles does the story justice en Français (for the non French speaking Babel FISH makes a passable translation to cover the key points!), including his use of aromathérapie (inc. aromatic oils for mildew treatment) and l’homéopathie.
Back to the PAN Europe report. The full research, carried out by Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) in France, Germany and Austria, showed that all of the 34 bottles of conventionally produced wine showed traces of at least one, and as many as 10, chemicals, yet out of the 6 organically produced wines only one showed a low trace of one of the less dangerous substances, the other 5 being completely free of contaminants. The supporting information sheet contains the key facts to interpret the results and, as Jamie Goode points out, the levels of chemicals analysed in the wine are minute, typically in single or double digit ug/kg (micrograms per kilogram), and there is no suggestion that the wines are actually hazardous to health in any direct sense. However Jamie then references these concentrations to LDL50 or MRL values, the former referring to doses that KILL 50% of the test population and the latter a measurement of what has actually been found on samples (and not related to what is a safe level) – so neither is relevant to help our understanding on whether something is safe for widespread human consumption. It is known that 5% of grapes tested in earlier studies “contained pesticides in excess of legal limits” and also that “30% of pesticide substances (on grapes) could be transferred into wines”, also stating that “significant levels of pesticides present in the grapes were nonetheless transferred to the wines”.
To try and cut through the confusion I asked some questions to Elliot Cannel, the UK coordinator for PAN Europe, on the research and how it may affect the wine world. While he did qualify that he wasn’t an agronomist the advice seems reasonable:
- on residue levels compared to fruit & vegetables found in stores; “the EU sets legal limits for pesticides in raw fruit and vegetables. There are none for wine or other processed foods. So we’re unable to make that comparison”
- on the minimum acceptable levels of the contaminants; “as far as I am concerned, for pesticides such as procymidone – which is an EU classified carcinogen, reprotoxin, and endocrine disruptor, I don’t think any amount in food is acceptable.”
- on practical advice to winemakers who can’t realistically remove pesticides from their options. “I’d advise anyone producing food to stay away from using pesticides classified in the EU as being ‘carcinogenic’, ‘mutagenic’, ‘reprotoxic’ or ‘endocrine disrupting’. Secondly, I’d ask farmers to look at cutting back on pesticide use. Farmers in Denmark, for example, have cut back on pesticide use by 50% over the last 20 years.”
None of this suggests that what was found in the wine is actually dangerous to the consumer, but what about the producer? The Jacques Beaufort anecdote above shows the effects this can have on health and the BBC reported last year on related research on increased brain tumours for agricultural workers exposed to high levels of pesticides. The last page of the PAN report discusses the health impacts on vineyard workers and it is worrying reading – citing higher incidences of “allergic rhinitis, respiratory problems, cancers, and chromosomal and nuclear abnormalities, as well as lower neurological capacities.”
The French government, worried about health risks and water contamination, is already looking at allocating money to help reduce the use of pesticides and Denmark (and Sweden & Norway) have been involved in a Government based pesticide reduction/taxation program since the mid-1980s. This was touched upon by Elliot, “Yes, they were given support from the Danish government in doing so, but Danish fruits and vegetables are now six times less contaminated than equivalent imports.”
For me this is the immediate concern of the PAN Europe report, not that wine drinkers are at risk, because I doubt they are, but that this is an indirect sign of the volume and toxicity of the pesticides used in winemaking which is going to have a direct effect on those industry workers, the land they pump these chemicals onto, the waterways they drain into and which concentrates them into exotic cocktails which can have unknown effects on wildlife and the general food chain which, ultimately, has humans at the top.
Not every producer can afford to be organic or biodynamic but Elliot’s take home message for the industry seems appropriate to end the article – “cut out the worst pesticides, and cut back on the rest”.