Loss of 30 billion hectoliters blamed on biodynamic farmers

Emmanuel Giboulot remains unrepentant. “I do not see how refusing to use harmful pesticides is a bad thing. I refuse to support the profits of corporations when our health is at risk from these toxins.”

That was in February 2014, when he was found guilty of refusing to spray pesticides against the spread of leafhopper Scaphoideus titanus, believed to be responsible for the grapevine disease flavescence dorée.

Three years later and the French wine industry is devastated.

“Production yields have dropped from 42 million hectoliters in 2014 to only 11.9 hectoliters this year,” says Genevieve Du Plooy, a wine analyst at the Paris Institute of Technology. “Flavescence dorée has ruined some of the oldest vineyards in the world. We may never recover.”

How did we get here? In August 2014, with hundreds of thousands signing petitions in support of Giboulet, and thousands more coming out in protest – attacking the offices of the Agriculture Ministry, and demanding that the government respect biodynamic agriculture – the French government caved in.

French President Francois Hollande declared: “How can we refuse to support biodynamic farmers when we are ethically opposed to genetically modified crops? We must be consistent. Biodynamic natural foods are the French way.”

It turns out that the “French way” has led to the end of an industry. China is now the world’s largest wine-maker and their farmers are cheerfully offering this year’s Bordeaux-style wines to France.

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

Daktulosphaira vitifoliae is the wine industry’s equivalent of bubonic plague. The aphid, commonly known as Grape Phylloxera, arrived in Europe in 1858 by steamship from the US. It was noted in the Languedoc region of France in 1863.

By 1870, 40% of French grape vineyards were devastated. The eventual solution was to graft European vines onto American rootstock which are resistant to Phylloxera. The loss to the French is estimated at 10 billion Francs. Winemakers emigrated to other parts of the world, kickstarting viticulture there.

Eventually, the French wine industry recovered. People, though, have forgotten. Much as some parents are more worried about spurious claims that vaccines are dangerous, forgetting the real danger that mumps or measles represent, many people have forgotten the threat that plant diseases hold.

Phylloxera continues to be a danger to the wine industry.

January 2014: Wine production rises as China booms
French wine production rose 13% in 2013 as increased demand in China outstripped global supply. In 2014, the Paris-based Agriculture Ministry predicts they could produce as much as 49.8 million hectoliters, with some US$ 14.5 billion going to exports.

“The weather was good last year, thankfully, and helped us improve production. If we’re similarly lucky this year we should break that record,” says Marie Ruitenburg, a winemaker in the Loire valley.

Strong demand has permitted winemakers to experiment with different growing techniques, including biodynamic viticulture. An esoteric flavor of the organic movement, described as “pseudoscience” and “magical thinking” by numerous scientists, biodynamics incorporates organic methods with astrological beliefs in cosmic energy and the memory of water. Some proponents burn insect pests and scatter the ash on their soil as a “warning” to other insects.

Developed by Rudolf Steiner in 1924, it requires a series of preparations most of which require compounds to be placed in cow horns and buried underground. As Steiner explained: “The cow has horns in order to send into itself the astral-etherial formative powers which, pressing inward, are meant to penetrate right into the digestive organism…”

It has much in common with homeopathy and the anti-vaccine lobby.

April 2014: Flavescence dorée and the war for biodynamics
Emmanuel Giboulot, who has been producing côte de beaune and haute-côte de nuits wines according to biodynamic principles for 30 years, is an angry man. “I still don’t feel guilty. It’s intolerable today to be forced to hide and to be frightened for taking a stand.”

He has just been fined US$685 under article 251-20 of the rural code, for “failing to apply an insecticide treatment to his vineyard”. The Côte-d’Or region has been struggling with the advance of the leafhopper Scaphoideus titanus, believed to be responsible for the grapevine disease flavescence dorée.

Hundreds of supporters gather outside the courthouse to hear the verdict, including Green MEP Sandrine Bélier. A debate follows regarding the free choice of individuals versus the community’s desire to avoid the spread of a known pest. Unfortunately – as in debates for climate change or vaccines – few are convinced by the science.

In June, José Bové, a French farmer and European Parliament member of Europe Écologie, a coalition of environmentalist political parties, challenges the French government and threatens to take the case to the EU. Citizens take to Twitter and Facebook. Protests and petitions cause gridlock in Paris.

With his government suffering record unpopularity, French President Francois Hollande intervenes in August and declares: “How can we refuse to support biodynamic farmers when we are ethically opposed to genetically modified crops? We must be consistent. Biodynamic natural foods are the French way.”

June 2015: Leafhoppers grow up
“There is only one way to manage the spread now, that is to uproot the vine and burn them,” says a plainly stricken Paul-Henri Thillardon as he stares at his rust-colored vineyards. Ordinarily, the vines would be heavy with fruit. Today the leaves are curled and reddish.

“It isn’t Scaphoideus itself,” says Genevieve Du Plooy, a wine analyst at the Paris Institute of Technology. “The leafhopper carries a bacterium, Candidatus Phytoplasma vitis. As it feeds on the leaves of the vines it transfers the bacterium. It is this which infects and kills young vines and damages old-growth vineyards.”

“Our concern, though, is that patchy and inconsistent insecticide use may have caused the leafhopper to become immune. We’re not sure if we can contain its spread anymore.”

Big commercial winemakers are in panic.

Emmanuel Giboulot’s farm is identified as the source of this outbreak. He is unapologetic, “My neighbors are at fault. If they had adopted biodynamic techniques then we would all have been safe. Instead they have infected and destroyed my livelihood.”

June 2016: France imports grapes
“This is the last of the cellar,” says Nicolas Chapoutier, as he prepares bottles of wine for distribution to retailers in Europe. “We have only a third of the yield we would normally expect from last year. I’m not sure what we’re going to do.”

Other winemakers are more innovative, importing grapes from elsewhere in Europe. “The grapes don’t travel well, but we’re learning how to make decent wine out of it,” says Lutece Joly, a vintner in Languedoc.

The French government declares a national emergency in July giving the Agriculture Ministry the ability to take decisive steps. “We will recommend that all the vineyards surrounding core areas be burned to create a physical barrier preventing the leafhopper migrating. That way we can protect some cultivars and redevelop the industry once we have Scaphoideus under control,” says Genevieve Du Plooy.

The cost tips France into recession and causes investor panic across the EU.

China, already the world’s second-largest table-grape producer after the US, sees the opportunity to promote its own wine industry. French winemakers, forced off their farms by the burn, head to China to take advantage of state incentives to help improve winemaking there.

The French start to see an unfamiliarly large selection of foreign wines at their local stores.

April 2017: French wine industry collapses
“It bothers me that, at a point in history where we know more about the pathology of infection and the spread of disease, people are the most skeptical of the benefits of science,” says Genevieve Du Plooy. “None of this needed to happen.”

The US has been a major beneficiary, seeing their wine exports grow by 8%. It is the Chinese, however, who appear to have gained the most. Not only have they found new markets for their grapes and wines, but the influx of experienced winemakers is likely to have a material impact on the quality of their wines.

France, which has given so much to winemaking, is now on its way to becoming a niche wine producer.

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