Organic winemaker risks prison for not using pesticide

Emmanuel Giboulot.
Emmanuel Giboulot.

Emmanuel Giboulot. 'Of course I'm afraid', he says. But somehow, he's still smiling.

An organic farmer in France's Cote d'Or has been prosecuted for refusing to spray insecticide on his vineyard - and is anxiously awaiting the verdict, due on 7th April. He faces 6 months in prison and a €30,000 fine.
These automatic treatments will reduce to nothing many years of work to put in place a balanced ecosystem allowing self-regulation of diseases and parasitism.

A French biodynamic winemaker in Cote d'Or department has been prosecuted for not using an insecticide on his vineyard to prevent infection with the bacterial vine disease flavescence dorée - and is anxiously awaiting the verdit, due on 7th April.

Emmanuel Giboulot, 51, faces up to six months imprisonment and a €30,000 fine for defying a prefectural order forcing winemakers to spray their vines with pesticide against the leafhopper Scaphoideus titanus, the insect responsible for the spread of the disease.

"I refuse to spray a dangerous pesticide that destroys bees among other things. Even the least harmful insecticide against leafhopper kills the auxiliary fauna", he declared.

Official Order to prevent any risk of epidemic

The Prefectural Order was released in June 2013 to fight a hypothetical risk of this contagious grapevine disease. Two hotbeds were discovered in the area in 2005 and 2011 leaving thousands of vines damaged over an area of 12 hectares, about 30 acres.

To avoid a recurrence of the infection, the Prefect of Cote d'Or Department has ordered vineyard owners to spray insecticide on their vines to reduce leafhopper density - stressing that the application should happen only once.

Flavescence dorée (FD) disease appeared in Europe after the leafhopper was accidentally imported from the United States in the early 20th century. It was discovered for the first time in southwest of France in 1958.

Giboulot has cultivated his 10-hectare (25 acre) domaine organically since the 1970s providing "excellent results" without using any chemical products, and without resorting to prophylactic spraying of any kind. He has also been farming biodynamically since 1985.

Found guilty - but final judgment reserved

He was prosecuted under article 125-20 of the Rural Code for breaking a Prefectural Order regarding the fight against regulated animal and plant diseases.

Giboulot's lawyer Benoist Busson, a specialist in environmental law, told the court that the Order was illegal in the absence of any state of emergency.

He also reminded the court that the Order against the vines disease was made in 2003 and revised in December 2013 - it its terms applied only to areas actually at risk of the flavescence dorée disease - and "not the entire Department".

In a first hearing, the judge deemed Mr. Giboulot guilty of a criminal offence for refusing to respect an official order and sentenced him a €1,000 fine, half of it suspended.

The final judgment will be delivered at a hearing on 7th April at the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Dijon.

These automatic treatments will reduce to nothing many years of work to put in place a balanced ecosystem allowing self-regulation of diseases and parasitism.

'Natural products can do the job'

Giboulot insists that vineyards can be protected against leafhopper without damaging the environment using natural products such as ferns, calcined clay and oat straw.

He also stresses that there was no actual outbreak of the disease in the entire Department, so there was no risk in any case.

Both biodynamic and organic farming rules forbid the use preventative pesticide treatments. But in the event of an outbreak, he would have been allowed to use the plant-based insecticide Pyrevert, based on natural pyrethrum from chrysanthemum flowers.

But Pyrevert is non-selective and as well as killing any leafhoppers, it's also toxic to other insects including pollinators such as bees, and benign predatory insects such as ladybirds that feed on aphids - which can also damage vines and reduce yields.

Another group of beneficial insects at risk are Typhlodromus mites, a group of predatory insects that attack red spiders, a serious pest which, like aphids, feed on vine sap.

It's the ecology, stupid

As Denis Thiery, director in the National Institute of Agronomical Research told Le Monde, "Even if Pyrevert is of natural origins it is damaging for the environment. It is a neurotoxin that can affect not just insects, but birds, other animals, even the winemakers, depending on the doses used."

He added that the treatment was also likely to be ineffective: "In reality, the efficacy of these treatments against flavescence dorée, whether natural or conventional, is not great.

"Not all the insects are killed and the epidemic continues to spread quickly. But, like all epidemics, we don't know if the situation would be worse without the treatment."

Diagnose first, spray later - if you have to

Dr Sebastien Bellow, whose PhD thesis is on vines' natural resistance to mildew, said: "To avoid contagious grapevine diseases we must develop reliable diagnostic tools to implement beforehand.

"Many different solutions can be used to do so such as fluorescence - then we can see at an early stage if vines are infected. This diagnostic method is non-destructive and pre-symptomatic." That is, the presence of diseases can be identified before any symptoms are apparent.

The French farmers union, Confederation Paysanne, agrees with this low-impact approach to pest control.

"The insecticide spraying has been made mandatory on large geographic areas despite the absence of a preliminary diagnostic to assess the level of risk of flavescence dorée ...

"These automatic treatments have a short-term effect and will reduce to nothing many years of work to put in place a balanced ecosystem allowing self-regulation of diseases and parasitism."

Support committee and Ecophyto Plan

Giboulot's case has been widely publicised in France. A petition launched by IPSN, the Institute for the Protection of Natural Health, to support his fight with the authorities, has received over 500,000 signatures. Another petition has gathered over 61,000 supporters.

His Facebook support page has recorded 125,000 Likes. He has also released a video, seen more than 80,000 times, to explain and alert the public to his case which could affect not only winemakers, but all organic farmers. In it he says:

"Farmers should be encouraged to use solutions that protect the environment and shouldn't be subjected to the terror of a judicial punishment. Nothing will change if hundreds of thousands of citizens don't speak up clearly by signing the petition."

France - Europe's biggest agrochemicals consumer

IPSN also denounces the massive preventative use of pesticides in France. Despite the 'Ecophyto Plan' launched in 2008 by the Ministry of Agriculture, France is the biggest agrochemicals consumer in Europe.

The Ecophyto Plan's main objective is to reduce by 50% the amount of pesticide used in France by 2018. But the target will not be reached, the French Minister of Agriculture himself, Stéphane Le Foll, told the responsible Senate Commitee in July 2013.

Green MEP for the region, Sandrine Bélier, deplored Le Foll's admission of failure - and mocked "the nonsense of a system that sentences those who make the brave choice to promote other farming approaches such as the biodynamy."

She says that France's vineyards, which occupy 3.7% of farmland, use 20% of all pesticides and that the intensive spraying is damaging the health of cultivators.

And she believes that sinister forces may be at play, influencing decision-making processes in government: "Automatic use of chemicals is nothing but a decoy expertly maintained to maintain control of a sector with products from agro-chemical industry."



Sandra Saadi is a freelance journalist.

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