Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pesticides in Paradise: 30,000 Pounds of Roundup in Napa

I'm writing a guidebook now about organically grown wines (and the wineries that grow and make them) in Napa and spending a lot of time in the beautiful valley. And what weather to be there in! The crowds haven't arrived and the warm temperatures and sunshine have made it a joy to simply be there.

As I've wandered through my days there, and people have asked what my journey there is about, I've gotten so many positive reactions from the younger people in town about my project and tours. I'm heartened by their enthusiasm.

On the other hand, older folks seem to not know that pesticides are actually present in Napa. I can't blame them. The subterfuge is compelling - there are so many CCOF signs on Highway 29 that one would think this was The Organic Promised Land. But those signs are an anomaly - if only the non organic vineyards all had to be labeled. There's also a certain practice of people wanting to get their acreage fronting on Highway 29 certified and forget the rest, assuming people will think that all their vineyards are farmed and/or certified organic.

The industry has succeeded beautifully in making a lot of noise about sustainability - and nowhere more so than Napa, which created its own certification program called Napa Green. Like the grandaddy of California's wine industry sustainability programs, it doesn't address pesticides, except to say please don't use them if you don't need to.

Only organic certification is a legal standard, a fact which the average person, visitor, or tasting room clerk may not know.

Tonight I went to the St. Helena Library to hear my favorite wine book writer James Conaway speak. He's written a new book (duly noted here a few posts ago). It turns out the wonderful land use issues the valley thought solved by the creation of their Ag Preserve are under attack again. A hedge fund has bought up two wineries - one grandfathered in to the old unregulated status and one newer winery that had restrictions placed upon it. A fight is rumbling through the valley and the oldtimers who created the original Ag Preserve are mustering their community and legal forces to fight off the challengers. Like my hero Huey Johnson says, the enemy only has to win once. You have to win every time. It's a long range endeavor.

In the Q and A after Conaway's remarks and reading, the subject of organics came up in a question from an audience member. Responding to that topic, a leader of the group (from a winery family) said growers didn't like organic certification because it meant someone from the state would come on to their  (the growers') property. This is actually not to my knowledge true. Someone from a certifying agency comes to inspect the property. You can pick which certifier you want to work with - there are several that have USDA approval  - CCOF is just one of them. No one at CCOF works for the government although they do comply with federal standards.

My response to this discussion was to announce that this very topic - organics - was one I am writing about, and blog about. I suggested that people go to look at the pesticide statistics provided by the California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation (online), and to use the state's Dept. of Health agricultural pesticide mapping tool to see where the pesticides are being applied in Napa County.

1. For the benefit of others, as well as those who attended, the Napa county statistics are these (for the year 2010, the most recent year the DPR has published them online): PDF link here.

Basically, for starters, it says that 30,000 pounds of Roundup were applied to winegrapes in Napa County in 2010. 

Much more dastardly chemicals were also applied.  

But just to keep it simple, we now know ROUNDUP is not as benign as it was once thought to be.

2. The agricultural pesticide mapping program from the California State Dept. of Public Health can show you data by county for a variety of pesticides, not just Roundup. Here are the three maps I looked at recently:

Endocrine Disruptors
Known and Probable Carcinogens
Developmental or Reproductive Toxicity 
I don't know what the levels of exposure are to these chemicals. I just know I don't like seeing these maps. And I think we should be having a public conversation about what these maps are telling us.

The U.S. is famous for doing the research on pesticides and then not having the political will (unlike our European counterparts) to do something about the research.

Currently only 2% of our vineyards in California are certified organic, while in France (where it is much harder to grow winegrapes organically due to summer rains) 6% are.

We have hundreds of acres of certified organic wine grapes growing in Napa Valley (Pelissa Hills/Napa Wine Co. and the 1,000+ acres of certified vineyards Mark Neal manages, to name but a few) and those growers don't seem to be experiencing economic woes compared to their pesticide-using counterparts. And they don't even charge more for the wines made from those grapes in the marketplace.

So let's not talk about "sustainability" and bird boxes. Let's talk about chemicals and pesticides and let consumers make the personal choices that politicians and regulators seem to be unable to.

1 comment:

  1. I believe that about 8% of the vineyards in France are now in bio or biodynamique (or in conversion). It is probably more difficult to convert in California since about 2/3 of the CA vineyards were planted after the advent of industrial agriculture and so most have never known anything else. It might take decades to restore land that has been thus abused to healthy and safe agriculture.