On Organics, Biodynamics, and Sustainable Viticulture.

In a recent conference in the UK on “Food and Farming Futures”, Jules Pretty (co-Vice Chancellor at the University of Essex) called for a stop to the bickering between “conventional” and “organic” farming communities. Time to work together. Certainly, for Australian fine wine viticulture, its time to work together, to blur the boundaries openly.

My background is not only science, but it’s to science I turn for technical solutions. It’s the longstanding alternative medicine argument, only applied to food (and grape) growing – alternative medicine is great, but only for certain ailments. For worse conditions, best see a doctor. I’m happy to take Echinacea for a mild cold. For thyrotoxicosis, I’ll see my endocrinologist. More on this later, but for the moment a brief look at the background of agricultural chemical use.

“Conventional” farming, as it is called, is really a twentieth century thing. Only a few hundred years ago, farming and agriculture was almost exclusively local, mixed and unspecialized. Recent developments in society, the growth in cities, increased transportation, and other obvious aspects of development have changed the situation dramatically. The problem with “conventional” farming practices in a post-WW2 context is largely hubris. The 20th century notion was that people could overcome natural systems, or at least pummel them into submission through technology and brute force. The rapid expansion of the Western (and global) food chain, alongside the development of supermarkets, urbanization and the already on hand nitrogen-fixing post-war industry joined up with Modernism in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s to give us broadacre farming on a scale never before attempted. Michael Pollan’s discussions in The Omnivores’ Dilemma about corn and food chains are insightful here. Mankind sought to dominate the agricultural landscape. Large (oil-based, tractor driven) fields of food crops replaced mixed farms. And meantime masses of people moved to the city, to seek a brighter future of cars, televisions, rapid transportation, fast food, consumerism and (more recently) mobile phones. The commodification of food was underway, and this has been shortly followed by wine. The thinking was that science and innovation would help rationalize the economics of food production. Efficiency and pragmatism – the dual mantra of free market economists – sought to overcome biodiversity and complex natural systems. After all, we had the H-bomb, or at least America did, so, like, we could do anything. Men had walked on the moon. Why couldn’t we dominate the farming landscape?

And so agriculture became increasingly dependent on herbicides, pesticides, fungicide and, more recently, genetic modification, to keep ahead of the insects, fungi, bacteria, virus, mites and blights which sought to bring the whole yield down. At the most extreme it has been Man versus Nature, to a large extent, and we have been reliant on chemistry, and biochemistry, to beat the system into submission.

Farmers and grape growers alike are now more than ever looking to other ways to produce from their land, recognising the implicit arrogance of this approach. Today, new ways of thinking are no longer emergent, they are gaining ground. Complex systems are not as easy to describe and tame as we had once thought. And along similar lines consumers are looking to reduce potentially harmful residues, preservatives, poisons and taints in the things which they swallow.
From this largely holistic and moral standpoint, the increasingly important sectors of organics and biodynamics are gaining meters of shelf space in our food and drinks selection. The moral principles might be summed up as:
• Working with, rather than against, nature seems sensible, and might ultimately be easier
• The avoidance of unwanted chemical residues in our food chains is clearly desirable
• Limiting environmental impact, allowing for increased biodiversity and reduced pollution is necessary for long term sustainability and ecologically responsible behaviour

At Circe Wines, these principles hold fast.

However, the issue is clouded along three lines. Firstly, marketing and spin. There remain, as always, unscrupulous folks who will tell customers what they think they want to hear, without practical reality or actual truth. Despite best efforts by some, there is little or no accountability for one’s green or organic credentials. Certification for organic production by farmers is currently not regulated by government in Australia. Although the Biological Farmers Association do go a long way to improving this situation, there remains a massive grey area of so called “organic principles” without certification.
Secondly, and perhaps more critically, the viticultural aspects of certified organic production actually allow the use of some spray products which can be long term problems, such as copper sulphate. So organic growers can and do use heavy metal sprays which have long term environmental persistence. Confusing? Yes.

To further muddy the waters, biodynamic practices, which are often invoked with considerable zeal but somewhat shaky foundations, are very difficult to prove effective. In particular, the application of biodynamic preparations in tiny quantities, while not strictly harmful, has limited support from science and indeed falls short in itself of the soil amelioration required to replace that which the vine takes out. If every year grapes and grapevine cuttings are removed from the soils, ultimately this deficit must be replaced. Composting and mulching can help, but these are not limited to biodynamics. And still, the biodynamic advocates smile and muse devotedly – with limited support from more rational camps. I’m open to the ideas, but it sounds too much like religion. And although some of the biodynamic wines are terrific, as I watch the rain come down this February I’m not sure I can say that it’s working.

Finally, the agricultural science world is in fact not crowded with money-grabbing, planet-raping raving capitalists. Science is, in its very nature, robust and thorough, self-critical and introspective. Through this, there are some really smart people producing some clever innovative products. A better understanding of the biochemistry of pests and disease, as well as the complex web of interactions between plants, animals and microflora, is developing synthetic products with less and less environmental impact and residues. At least, there are many who are genuinely trying along these lines. And their efforts are to a large degree dismissed as pro-industrial and un-green. Unfashionable, uncool, and out of sync with Mother Nature.

So let’s just look at that last phrase: “out of sync with Mother Nature”. The world of wine is full of talk of “minimal intervention”, of “letting nature take its course”. Yet in Australia and Europe we are busy for the vast majority of cases growing a non-indigenous monoculture at the expense of biodiversity and the original land usage (Vitis vinifera is native to the forests of the Middle East originally). And then we halt the “natural” decomposition of grapes before the bacteria and tertiary yeasts take hold, preserving (by intervention with sulphur dioxide and exclusion of air) wine rather than the true, natural product, Brettanomyces-vinegar.

We do, however, hold to the principle of letting the grapes speak for themselves, and of adding as little as possible to the grapes and wine, however we have no pretence that this viticultural and oenological process would be occurring without our intervention. Wine is strictly a product of artefact.

To my thinking, the enlightened path is a mixture of both organic and non-organic approaches. Clearly, as little inputs as possible would be good. A holistic approach to land, soil, biology and vine would be good. But also, as little carbon as possible would also be good. Complex ecology and a long term view would be good. And the best wine possible would really be good.

Dan Buckle, February 2011.

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