It was a great pleasure to attend this conference held in Avignon back in May and I'm excited to share this article I wrote about this very valuable event, especially as biodiversity gets more attention on the world stage with the current UN conference on biodiversity (a 13 day event - don't worry, you haven't missed it as it's just kicked off) now taking place in Montreal.
In its coverage of the event so far, The Guardian wrote of the UN's biodiversity chief, "Andersen emphasised that the final text of any agreement must tackle “the five horsemen of the biodiversity apocalypse”: land-use change; overexploitation; pollution; the climate crisis; and the spread of invasive species." (You can follow Tweets from the conference @UNBiodiversity.)
The conference was a two day affair held at the Palais des Papes and featured a highly qualified list of speakers. Of particular interest were presentations by two researchers from Geisenheim in Germany - Professor Dr. Ilona Leyer who holds the Professorship for Biodiversity and Functions of Eco-systems and researcher Katharina Adler, also of Geisenheim, who has studied viticulture and birds.
Here is Ilona's full presentation from the conference. I am hoping to followup with a link to Adler's as well.
The takeaway message of both presenters was that organic is better than conventional, but complexity of species is best of all, advising growers to use hedge rows and insectiaries to break up monocultures. While these practices are practically de rigeur in organic vineyards, of course, any grower can use them. However, the researchers said, it is harder to foster biodiversity while using chemical agriculture.
In the Rhone region about 30 percent of vineyards are organic.
In addition, it should be noted that "Biodiversity" is probably the term I heard used most often in wine marketing and is the biggest buzzword in the industry, judging from advertising and social media. As the U.S. uses the word "sustainable" to try to appear green, "biodiversity" is a more popular term in France, judgung from my two trips last year (to Bordeaux in Dec. for the Environment Forum and to Avignon, Languedoc, and Saint Chinian in May).
At Domaine de la Solitude in Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CdP), vigneron Florent Lançon is planting traditional fruit trees–cherry trees and apricots–which were once the region’s most treasured crops. But he’s not planting them to sell them at the market. He’s planting them and raising bees to enhance agro-biodiversity on his family’s historic, 100 acre organic estate.
Nearby, the Jeunes Vignerons of Chateauneuf-du-Pape are planting a 26 mile long row of trees across their 8,000+ acre appellation (in which a third of the planted vines are certified organic). Part of a national movement of young winegrowers, the tree planting project is titled the Marathon of Biodiversity (#marathondelabiodiversite). The young vignerons in CdP are also fighting against construction of a local mine.
Over at Domaine de la Charbonnière, sisters Caroline and Veronique Maret are counting solitary bees captured in cardboard tubes to track pollinator health.
These are all initiatives to soften or reverse some of the impacts that vineyard monocultures have had on biodiversity–losses documented by scientists who presented in-depth research at the Vineyards and Biodiversity conference held May 12-13 in Avignon. Organized by German born, Paris based wine writer, Birte Jantzen, and held at the Palais de Papes, the conference featured 15 biodiversity experts speaking on a rich, cross-section of topics ranging from birds and bees to massale selection to geology and microbial life.
Biodiversity only became an official word in 1985, but it’s so widely used in France that you would never know its history is so recent. All across the country, wine regions and vintners are focusing on biodiversity, planting thousands of trees, protecting nature, and even labeling their organic bottles with eco-friendly pictures of birds.
As wineries have proliferated, they’ve changed landscapes, scientists and experts said, drastically reducing insect and bird populations and jeopardizing future vineyard fertility and ecosystem services vine growers depend on. Cultivar and genetic diversity have declined, too, making vineyards more vulnerable to climate change as well as future diseases and pests.
As many as half of birds in European farmlands have been wiped out due to habitat and pesticide stress, researchers said. In Germany, due to mechanization, vineyard orientation on steep slopes significantly increased soil erosion after winegrowers changed from traditional, horizontal terraces to downslope rows that are easier for machinery to navigate. The hundreds of hedgerows that used to provide biodiversity buffers have all but been eliminated in some regions, according to researchers.
“From 1952 to 2002, there has been a revolution in the landscape,” said Professor Dr. Ilona Leyer (HER SLIDES) of Hochschule Geisenheim University who holds the Professorship for Biodiversity and Functions of Eco-systems.
She presented aerial maps comparing selected winegrowing areas in that 50 year interval. Residents recalled no big changes, but the photos showed otherwise.
“There were many tiny plots which are now big plots. There were woodlands and single trees and allees. Now we’ve lost all the trees and hedgerows,” she said. “There’s been a homogenization of the viticultural landscape.”
The loss of insect populations has been dramatic, she noted. “A 2017 study found a 75 percent decline over 27 years in protected areas,” she said, quoting from the work of researcher Caspar Hallman.
“We have lost more than 300 million birds in the EU in 30 years,” she said.
|Slides from Leyer's presentation|
The use of chemicals in vineyards is partly but not wholly to blame, she and other speakers said, stressing that landscape biodiversity and vineyard practices had an influence on the ability of biodiverse ecosystems to survive.
How can winegrowers repair some of the negative impacts on biodiversity? Leyer recommended removing very short vine rows at the edges of vineyards, replanting vineyards on steep slopes to horizontal terraces (instead of downhill orientation), restoring hedgerows and planting embankments with native plants. Becoming organic in the vines is another powerful lever, experts said.
|Slide from Leyer's presentation|
“We can undo what previous generations did. But terroir is made, not fixed,“ said Franck Alexandre, Gigondas vintner and President of Crédit Agricole Alpes Provence. “Terroir is always evolving. We cannot leave to our children a bad landscape and pollution.”
“Our society depends on ecosystem services,” said Bordeaux based researcher Adrian Rusch of INRA. In a series of peer reviewed, published studies in major journals, the Bordeaux scientist has written about how “landscape simplification reduces abundance and diversity of natural enemies in agroecosystems.” (Here is one of his latest articles: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11625-022-01223-x#Fig1)
In his conference talk, Rusch presented data from a 2021 study by Yohan Charbonnier showing the beneficial pest control ecosystem services bats deliver when they eat European grapevine moths. In this study, “seventy percent of the bats in the study had grapevine moth residues in their feces,” he said, showing their positive impact in pest control.
Many studies cited found that organic farming amidst biodiverse landscapes created the most positive conditions to promote healthy, balanced ecosystems to mitigate monoculture’s detrimental impacts and to promote ecosystem services.
Said Rusch, “it’s cheap to do biodiversity.”
The wine industry should also pay attention to its own declining cultivar diversity, he said, quoting former Harvard assistant professor Elizabeth M. Wolkovich’s research on the topic. [She's now in B.C.] “Only one percent of the varieties in the world dominate,” Rusch said, with only 12 varieties planted on 70 percent of vineyard surfaces in most countries. That leaves vineyards vulnerable to future dangers.
|Morning panelists Sébastien Giorgis, Prof. Dr. Ilona Leyer, and Adrien Rusch|
with moderator Laetitia Allemand, a winemaker and TV wine journalist in France
At least one local producer is working to ensure that the natural diversity of their vines’ genetics is preserved. At biodynamic Chateau Beaurenard, the family has created its own vine nursery for future replants.
Regions like Bordeaux have recently taken baby steps to expand cultivar diversity by approving six new varieties (for limited use only). In Chateauneuf-du-Pape, vintners have 13 varieties to work with already but are looking for ways to mitigate an overreliance on grenache which is increasingly susceptible to warming temperatures making for higher alcohol levels.
Both Leyer and Rusch are collaborating in their home regions on vineyard and biodiversity projects. Leyer’s beginning a multi year study in Germany in which stakeholders will plan the evolving landscape development together and include biodiversity goals in their plans. In Bordeaux, Rusch is working on Atelier Bacchus, a long term project that is just one of the 14 living labs under the VITIREV project which experiments with agroecological innovation and biodiversity.
|Avid birder and biodynamic vigneron Frederic Coulon of Domaine de Beaurenard. His striking photos of birds in vineyards were used as conference art.|
When Rachel Carson wrote her historic book Silent Spring in 1962, she had no idea that 21st century viticulture and bird researcher Katharina Adler, of Hochschule Geisenheim University
would quote her. Adler began her talk on birds and vineyards with Carson’s quote,
“Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds.”
Adler showed data that revealed that farmland birds in European countries declined 17 percent from 1990 to 2018.
One of the few to have specifically researched the relationship of vineyards and birds, Adler’s research shows that vineyard habitats can support or negatively impact bird life. Vineyards with trees and bushes are attractive for birds, while individual vineyard monocultures are not, she said. When a region collectively has a high concentration of monoculture vineyards, that, too, has a strong negative effect on birds.
Planting diverse flowers and cover crops in vineyard rows can have a positive effect as can refraining from using herbicides, she said. Nest boxes are helpful, she said, but are best placed at the boundaries of vineyards or beyond, as vineyard work can disrupt nests and family bird life.
Prof. Emmanuelle Porcher, professor of ecology at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and director of the Centre d’Ecologie et des Sciences de la Conservation, gave a brief overview of citizen science research conducted
with 78 wine growers in the Cotes du Rhone.
The results of that research showed that mineral fertilizer and pesticides were responsible for the most rapid declines in butterfly and solitary bee populations. Cover crops provided the most beneficial habitat for vineyard biodiversity, she said. The studies were conducted by l’Observatoire de la Biodiversité (OAB).
The government is sponsoring Nature Watch programs to observe and measure biodiversity across 540 vineyard plots (in which 24 percent are organic). The program trains local high school students studying agriculture and viticulture in specific, standardized protocols and data collection methods to measure, observe and report data.
A new project, VitiBird (hashtag #VitiBird on Twitter), is now comparing pesticide sales data with bird population data to look at the relationships between biodiversity and chemical versus organic farming. The new studies will also analyze pesticide residue in bird feathers collected as part of the study.
Conference organizers plan to hold the event annually and are planning a 2023 conference.