November 6, 2020

Monoculture wars – the vineyards killing ecosystems

Read the article below on an overview of our climate talk on: The Role of Diversity in Vines,  by Jo Gilbert and published by Hapers magazine:

Friday Read: Monoculture wars – the vineyards killing ecosystems (30 October, 2020)

In Napa, John Williams, winemaker and the owner of Frogs Leap, is a winemaker in the minority. Around 6-7% of his land is devoted to crops other than vines. It’s a move that makes him stick out like a sore thumb surrounded by Rutherford’s rolling valleys where there’s barely a fruit tree in sight. In a region where a single hectare costs on average $1m, why devote a single plot to anything else?

“Because we’re talking about life,” said Williams. “Conventional farming systems are about pushing life out of vineyards. We need to talk about bringing life back in…and break-up these monocultures, which are never healthy.”

What’s a vineyard manager to do? ‘Biodiversity’ has become one of those catchall phrases. When broken down and pulled apart, it reveals a wider movement towards a return of proximity to nature – working with ecosystems’ natural boundaries. We know the benefits. Biodiversity in vineyards and in the soil means healthy and more robust ecosystems. These ecosystems are therefore more resistant to disease and better prepared to face off against a rapidly changing and disruptive climate.

Faced with these stark truths however, there remains resistance among the winemaking world to more migrating towards sustainable ways of working.

It was this that Williams and several others aimed to unravel during the Porto Protocol’s The Role of Diversity in Vines discussion – the last in a series of Climate Talks looking at how the wine industry can help to mitigate an increasingly turbulent climate.

Biodiversity isn’t just about plant life, of course. It’s about encouraging varied animal species, too.

“You can’t have agriculture without life in it,” said Michael Goëss-Enzenberg, owner of Manincor estate in northern Italy. “And life means animals: microorganisms in the soil; seeds and other plants between the vines to attract insects, bees and birds. Since we converted our vineyard to biodynamic principles, we have seen so many birds coming back, which we haven’t seen for long time. It’s about bringing life back to your land. That’s the most important thing.”

The picture painted by Pedro Beja, coordinating researcher at the Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO) in Portugal, is a sobering one. He points to 70 years of over reliance on inorganic fertilisers, pesticides, mechanisation, irrigation and simplification of landscapes decimating the eco-diversity of agricultural landscapes.

Vineyards are very much a part of this. Decades of farming focused around a few varieties of “highly productive staples” have resulted in an industry of harmful monocultures, he argues, where plant diversity is eradicated, bees poisoned and other wildlife sacrificed at the expense of in-demand crops.

“Since the 1950s, agronomy has been extremely successful at decreasing the productivity of land in order to increase the capacity to produce more food from the sidelines. The so called Green Revolution was able to feed a population that in the 1950s was about 2.5. billion people. And at the end of the century, in 2000, the population was already 6 billion. So, in a way, this was a very big success, but at an enormous cost mostly to the environment,” he said.

Clearly, untangling decades of farming methods isn’t a simple process. As the panel made clear, there is a learning curve involved – one that doesn’t end with an organic certificate.

But if the path to sustainability doesn’t have to end with organic certification, it doesn’t have to start with one, either.

“You don’t have to go all the way like we did, becoming fully biodynamic and zero waste,” Gabriela Mascioli, co-owner of Alentejo’s Herdade de Coelheiros, said. “You can start slowly. When people see that, I think we will see a big change.”

“The change is much faster than you think,” added Goëss-Enzenberg. “Within a year of planting cover crops – bringing other plants into your soil – you see the first change. You’ll see little bugs and animals that help you to cultivate the soil.”

The panel also challenged the idea that biodiversity is only for those with a large amount of land.

In Italy, where winemakers only work on average on around 1ha per plot, introducing biodiversity doesn’t mean you have to “lose or take out your crop. At the edges, or steeper [parts of the vineyard] you can introduce possibilities for animals. Put nests for birds between the vines. You don’t have to take out cultivated land. You can introduce biodiversity into vineyards to break up the harmful monocultures”, said Goëss-Enzenberg.

Monocultures are not only unhealthy for wildlife and vineyards, but are less efficient too, Mascioli argued.

When she and husband Alberto Weisser purchased their estate in 2015, they were expecting a “long and arduous wait” for the changes they made to pay off. But in “just a few months, you could see the difference”,  she said.

She recalls a tropical storm that decimated a nearby olive farm. This farm had recently been planted using conventional farming methods.

In Coelheiros however, where they use cover crops and composting to boost water absorption, “the vegetation was green and beautiful, but you could see where water had really gone into the soil. There was an amazing capillarisation of the soil, which really helped with our water compacting issues”, said Mascioli.

“It’s a question of mindset. We’re new to the wine world – just five years. We’ve found that people are very resistant to change. They think we’re trying to complicate things. The way of traditional farming is ‘apply the treatments; go with schedules’. With sustainable practices, you have to pay attention to vines and the climate, everything. For the people working with us for 40 years, there’s been a big resistance to how things are done.”

The Porto Protocol has been unrelenting in its efforts to bring climate action to the fore of the wine industry. In this instance, it has challenged its audience to look at the category as no different to wheat or barley. Wine is not seen as a cash crop – at least, not at the top end. The sheer attention to detail that spans vineyard, winery and cellar, separates it from other agricultural products.

But it has still suffered from decades of expansion and invasive, often harmful, farming techniques.

With climate change on the rise and a global population estimated to reach 11 billion by 2050, that’s something the industry is going to have to increasingly face up to.

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