A fair question. Numerous headlines over the last couple of years suggest that it is. For example, “Weedkiller Roundup banned in France after court ruling” or “France bans weed-killer after court ruling” (France 24 and RTE, respectively). However, although France has taken a leading position in attempting to ban Roundup, the truth is not so clear cut. Perhaps more revealing is “France’s Ban on Glyphosate Expected to Curb 80% of Use by 2021” as reported by Reuters, which reflects the current position. In Europe overall, Roundup is due to be completely banned by 2022.
In November 2017, President Macron pledged to ban glyphosate-based products (including Roundup) in France within three years, rejecting a European Union decision to extend its use for five years. This has been somewhat watered down to the ‘80% target’ position today, after much lobbying from farmers. The products that are actually banned today are stronger versions of the standard Roundup (eg Roundup 360 which has other products mixed with glyphosate). Standard Roundup will be around a few more years yet.
Why is this relevant for the wine I drink, you may ask? A few highlights below;
What is Roundup?
Roundup is the brand name for the world’s most used weedkiller, developed by Monsanto. The active ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate (hence why the two names are often interchanged in the debate). An incredible 800,000 metric tonnes of Glyphosate was used worldwide in 2017, around 9,000 of which were in France. In French vineyards, around 60% of producers use the product, without which they estimate the yields would drop around 10 – 15%.
Is it toxic to humans?
To say this is hotly debated is something of an understatement. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there, but to try to distill it into an easy summary, it seems in small doses Roundup is not acutely toxic, but there are risks to human health from high or prolonged exposure.
For example, a landmark ruling by a court in the US in August 2018 ruled that Roundup was liable for a terminally ill man’s cancer and ordered the company to pay $78 million in damages. The jury also found that the company “acted with malice or oppression” and failed to warn the plaintiff of the health hazards from exposure. There are at least another 10,000 similar cases pending. Furthermore, the WHO (World Health Organisation) has classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic in humans”. Traces of the product are regularly found in many products, including breakfast cereals, fruit juice, biscuits and of course wine.
On the other hand, the amounts found in the food and drink products are very small (you’d need to drink 40 bottles of wine per day for the roundup to kill you, by which time the alcohol certainly would have), and other items on the “probably carcinogenic” list include read meat and creosote. Also, various other scientific and research bodies have reported low or no risk of cancer in humans from Roundup. Thousands of farmers would vehemently argue Roundup is not harmful based on its extensive use for 40+ years, and often pose the question ‘what else could we use that is less harmful’? Whilst this is not an unreasonable question, is somewhat misses the point in our view as it is based on commercial needs and thus shifts the argument from the more fundamental “is it harmful to humans” question we are asking here.
So, what conclusions can we draw?
Many different conclusions, of course. Our view is that it is down to personal choice – do you want to drink a wine, or feed your kids a bowl of Cheerios, knowing roundup has been used, irrespective of the amount contained within? Some people would say no, others could not care less. We can also conclude that, just because a product has been in use for many years, that does not mean it is safe.
Here at Chollet, we would also make the following points;
- The use of Roundup (or any other chemical weedkiller) is simply not necessary. We kill weeds mechanically, as do all organic wine makers. Arguments for Roundup are based on yield and commercial needs, which are of course very important, but we and many others get a high enough yield without chemicals – it takes a few years to learn how to manage the vineyard that way, and a bit longer to get rid of the weeds, that’s all (roughly 12 hours per hectare per year versus 90 minutes with Roundup).
- The use of chemical weedkillers like Roundup is certainly harmful to the wider environment. As with this feature’s very quick look at the dangers to humans, you’ll find a host of conflicting information out there about environmental damage, but the product is linked with harm to earthworms, soil microbial life, aquatic life and disruption to food supplies to butterflies, amongst other things.
- Despite all the arguments either way, as anyone that visits us at this time of year will easily see, the contrast between vineyards treated with weedkiller and not is obvious. Sometimes you just need to take a look, and that is enough. See pics below.
At the top is a field of vines treated with roundup, at the bottom, one of our newly planted areas, where the weeds have been removed by a mechanical tool on the tractor. Wildlife thrives in the organically worked vines (in particular, we see quite a few hares at this time of year). The chemically-treated areas tend, unfortunately, to be mostly devoid of animals and insects.
In other pesticide news, Europe are about to ban anti-mildew products (the most common of which is called Bravo) containing Chlorothalonil, which is used in large quantities on many crops, not just vines (for example, it is the most widely used fungicide in the UK and US on cereal crops, as well as peas and beans). The product is highly harmful to aquatic life as it washes out of fields into water courses and is strongly linked with the steep decline in the pollinating bee population.
Whatever your views on the subject of Roundup or any other chemical product use in viticulture and farming in general, there’s only one way to be sure that no Roundup is in your wine – buy organic!