After the storms – do organic rules need to be rethought?

Robert Joseph questions whether a changing climate is going to force the organic wine movement to relax some of its regulations.

Downy mildew on young grapes / Credit: Ruth Walter - DLR Rheinpfalz
Downy mildew on young grapes / Credit: Ruth Walter - DLR Rheinpfalz

Not so long ago within living memory for most adult readers in most developed nations, for a politician to be found to have had an affair was a matter for resignation. It certainly disqualified candidates for high office.

The elections of both Trump and Johnson dramatically revealed how attitudes have changed in the UK and US. The ability to respect marriage vows to ‘forsake all others… till death do us part’ is evidently no longer a prerequisite for at least some world leaders.

But the governing bodies responsible for organic agriculture take a stricter view of promise-keeping. After a lengthy period of conversion, once you are accredited as farming organically, you have to keep to the rules, or give up your status.

Unless you happen to farm animals rather than crops. 

If you have a seriously ill cow or sheep, you can get a derogation that allows you to treat that beast with conventional medicine while continuing to farm the rest of the herd under organic standards. If you think about it, this is the only humane option. No farmer or their customers would want to watch any animal being left to die, quite possibly in pain, for the sake of a human being’s strongly-held belief.

But flora aren’t given the same consideration as fauna. The French online publication Vitisphère reported that the rains leading up to the extraordinary storms of July 15th, and the torrents on that day, have severely threatened a Champagne harvest that was already likely to have been cut by at least 25% after the frosts earlier in the year. Between July 12-15, the region was hit by 100mm of rain leading to outbreaks of mildew that are so bad in some plots that negociants may not bother to harvest them. As Franck Mazy, director of Viti-Concept in Epernay told Vitisphère, “organic growers, many of whom are in conversion, are particularly affected. Some are questioning whether to carry on”.

Christophe Didier, viticultural consultant at Nicolas Feuillatte made the same point. Some organic growers, he said, had already applied 16 treatments, with disappointing results. It’s a pity, he continued, because Champagne was being very dynamic in moving away from conventional methods. 

Climate change or ‘climate disaster’ or whatever you want to call it, is making the storms of July 15th, like the forest fires in California, Oregon and Washington, a lot less ‘extraordinary’. Even 30 years ago, farmers were able to make rough predictions of how the growing season would pan out, based on the experience of previous years. Of course, they were sometimes caught out, but more often than not, they got it more or less right. Today they admit that all bets are off: you have to expect the unexpected. And that makes commitment to organic farming very difficult.

Organic fundamentalists will shrug and say that the issue is black or white. You can’t come in and out of the programme any more than being a little bit pregnant. Pragmatists will respond that as times change, so must behaviour and rules.

I discussed this with a leading German organic producer a couple of years ago and was surprised to hear her agree that the organic hardline regulations are no longer sustainable. Our profit margins, she said, are not big enough, and organic wine does not command a sufficiently large premium, to cover the loss of half a crop. It’s fine wanting to farm well, but we have to feed our children.

She absolutely didn’t want to downgrade to Sustainable status. “I want to follow the organic rules”, she said, but there are times when nature may make it impossible for me to do so. We need some forms of derogation, like the cattle farmers.” 

Whether Trump or Johnson ever cared about respecting their marriage vows is open to question and I’m sure there are winegrowers whose adherence to the organic cause will always have been weak. But if we really do want to encourage more producers to embrace the concept, a little more flexibility may prove necessary.

Robert Joseph



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