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  • 01 April 2020
  • Soil and Farming

Save our Soils

Save our Soils

Wine, like cheese, corn and potatoes, is an agricultural product. 

In 2015, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation dropped a ticking time bomb on humanity. They announced that with our current rate of soil destruction, we may only have 60 harvests left. 

Agriculture is in trouble.

What does that mean for soil, and what does it mean for “sustainability,” in soil terms?

Latin: sustinere: “to hold up, hold upright... support; bear, undergo, endure,” from the assimilated form of sub “up from below” 

Old French: sostenir: “hold up, bear; suffer, endure.”

Somehow the word has waded its way through muddy etymology waters to its present somewhat vague definition today; “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” The sub-definition to this states, “Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.”

This is perhaps the polite way of phrasing how we are teetering on the seesaw of trying to keep our planet cultivable, thereby staying alive, in just one small sentence. 

To “hold up” insinuates that there is something below. What lies below is indeed what we ourselves must uphold; our soil. This is where we find the fundamental issue of sustainability in the agricultural world. As sentient beings who desire the continuation of life, our crucial responsibility lies with holding up and supporting our soils. 

Layering: A vine that has sprung roots from a cane. This is the vine's natural way of ensuring its survival if part of it were to die.

“There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings” - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

When navigating the supermarket aisles hurriedly, it is easy to forget that the bottle of wine that finds its way into your shopping basket comes from a vine, whose roots may be embedded several metres deep into the earth.

The vine’s roots serve three purposes; as anchors, as sources; the vine seeks its mineral nutrients and water from the soil via its roots; and as its engine. Over the winter, the vine stores carbohydrate reserves in the trunks and roots for the season ahead. Thus, the root system is in constant correspondence with the soil and water surrounding it.

The vine is not the strongest plant in the field’s pack. In fact, it’s rather the underdog. As such, it’s often a boxing match between the vine and its neighbouring weeds, and the vine doesn’t fare well, obtaining less nutrients and water. Contrary to what might seem sensical, competition is very important; when faced with a healthy struggle, the vine will proudly produce higher quality fruit. It’s not all that dissimilar to us human beings - will our bodies perform better if we sit on the couch and eat continually and in excess, or if we are exercising, maintaining a healthy diet?

Killing the Competition

When the competition from surrounding plants becomes too much of a struggle, the vine will produce much less fruit, sometimes unsustainably so. After the world wars, chemical fertilisers were introduced; these pumped nitrogen into the soils to produce more and more fruit. It was termed “the Green Revolution.” Many did not realise that in reality, this was the viticultural version of drug dependency; the soils became dependent on the chemicals, their natural resilience to disease was lessened, and nitrogen-pumped water damaged ocean ecosystems. Next, chemical herbicides were created to kill the competition in agriculture (the weeds) in the 1970s. By blasting the weeds out, the vine produced bountifully, which, in short gave higher yields and so more money. They provided an effective solution that could be applied by a one-man band, saving the grower a fortune in manpower.

Biodynamic preparations: the 500 and compost preps, used to revive and invigorate soil health

This was the precursor of a crisis that many argue Rudolf Steiner, founder of biodynamics, had predicted in the early 1900s. In the book, The Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method, one can find quotations by Steiner such as,

“Spiritual scientific knowledge must have found its way into practical life by the middle of the century if untold damage to the health of man and nature is to be avoided.”

However, regardless of Steiner’s efforts, many growers were reaping the so-called benefits of this new wave of chemical agriculture. It took until 1988, when soil microbiologist Claude Bourguignon famously declared Burgundy’s vineyard soils microbially dead, for growers around the world to start to pay attention. It rattled the wine world and opened up the question: is modern science so focused on results that we forget to observe? Are we driving fine wine to the point of extinction?

There has been a lack of funding to carry out in-depth research on the long-term effects of herbicides. Until recent studies, despite what our naked eye might tell us, herbicides were seen to be relatively unharmful; they were believed to be entirely biodegradable by soil bacteria.

However, winds of change have brought about new findings that support what the eye sees. Today, there is sufficient research to support the notion that herbicides may enter groundwater, thus contaminating wells and water systems. In addition, there’s evidence to suggest that prolonged herbicide use affects soil biotic activity. It is believed that this results not only in a reduction of soil health and microbiology, but also in a resulting negative impact on the grapevine’s ability to interact with its soil and environment. This results in reduced natural resilience (essentially the vine develops a weaker “immune system”), and eventually reduced fruit quality. 

It has also been noted that long-term herbicide regimens contribute to compaction (stress applied to soil, resulting in air being pushed out). When using herbicides, there is no longer the need for the ancient methods of ploughing or sowing cover crops, therefore no aeration takes place in the soil. In turn, this leaves the soil hardened, unable to allow water to enter. As well as causing erosion, it also means the loss of organic carbon. The vine lacks access to nitrogen and water, and the soil’s depleted organisms lack access to oxygen. This gives us a “less alive” soil, which in turn is less able to support the vine. 

How long it will take for this “less alive” soil to actually become “dead,” is unclear.

Alive Soils

Herbicide treated versus organic vineyard, Champagne


A contributing factor to the health of a vineyard is that of monoculture. Nicolas Joly of Coulée de Serrant emphasises that “monoculture is a great evil in agriculture today.” Forests and grazing fields for animals are removed and replaced by vineyards. They may look pretty, but pretty doesn’t provide organic carbon sources, nor does it provide defence against unwanted diseases and pests. With monoculture, there is no plant or animal life to support the natural defence mechanisms of a vineyard.

Greetings, earthling: Saying hello to a worm in Claus Preisinger's compost pile, Burgenland, Austria

Worms: our “Ecosystem Engineers”

The less carbon sources there are, the less earthworms there are, both due to herbicides quashing their breeding regimes and a monocultural environment providing less food for them. We are losing them at a catastrophic rate. Our little slimy friends are crucial to our soils; indeed, they are often referred to as our “ecosystem engineers.” Darwin named them “nature’s ploughs;” their burrowing allows oxygen and water to enter the soil. They eat organic matter and break it down via decomposition for bacteria and fungi to eat and release as nutrients that would otherwise be “locked” in dead plants or animals. 

“Probably Carcinogenic to Humans”

If there is evidence to support that earthworms are harmed by herbicides, what does it do to us humans? In 2015, glyphosate was classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, following a review of evidence from human exposure and laboratory studies, when they found “strong” evidence for genotoxicity.

Over the last decade, about 6.1 billion kilograms of the herbicide glyphosate have been applied worldwide. There are thousands of ongoing court hearings regarding the links between herbicides and cancer. Earlier this year, the U.S. PIRG activists discovered traces of glyphosate in 19/20 wine and beer brands tested. Despite the traces being miniscule and allegedly unharmful to humans in such micro-doses, they were detectable, nonetheless. 

It is clear that we are heading in the wrong direction. Soils are the foundation of viticulture, and statistics tell us that 33% per cent of land in the world is degraded due to the erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution of our soils. 

Healthy natural yeast fermentation: yeasts are responsible for wine

The Fungi Kingdom

Without fungi, we would not have wine. Yeasts are responsible for the conversion of grapes into the liquid in our glass. However, not all are beneficial, and some are disastrous. The worst, perhaps of all, is downy mildew. It arises in some areas where growers are faced with challenging, wet conditions, and it is capable of wiping out entire crops.  The answer here is not simple; organic growers are permitted to use a restricted amount of copper, an effective antifungal application, but copper in itself is a heavy metal which can also damage the soil and enter water networks via “run off,” killing fish. Systemic fungicides, however, are believed to damage the ground networks of fungi, known as mycorrhizae. 

Diana Snowden of Domaine Dujac and Snowden Vineyards, both farmed biodynamically

Diana Snowden Seysses, of Snowden Vineyards, Domaine Dujac, and winemaker at Ashes & Diamonds, explains,

“The soils need to thrive. The root system has a symbiotic relationship with the soil. If you use fungicides on the plant, it kills off part of the vehicle for the terroir to enter the vine.”

Christine Jones, Australian soil scientist, has claimed that environments with high populations of mycorrhizae are able to sequester 15% more carbon to the soil than those without these fungal networks. In a world that is in dire need of sinking its carbon, this 15% can go a very long way.

There is no simple solution. Growers all around the world are experimenting with alternatives. Citrus oil, clay and whey powder, known as “petits laits,” have all been reported to have positive effects, but we are still a way off being able to find a truly sustainable solution to the battle against the problematic fungi. 

Ladybird at Pierre Cotton's organic vineyard in Beaujolais: cute but can wreak havoc in fermentations

Animal Kingdom: an Animal-Eat-Insect World 

Of crucial importance to a vineyard is its animal and insect life. Vines need animals and insects to thrive, but some can cause great damage. This damage is not limited to the vine; it can also occur in the wine itself; for example in the case of ladybug taint and fruit fly taint, which in the worst instances can render the wine undrinkable.

Many insecticides are available on the market for growers, but these are proving damaging to the vineyard’s ecosystem. The most common class of pesticide used in agriculture, neonicotinoids, kill many beneficial insects that feed off the honeydew excretions from the targeted insects. Data shows these pesticides are still present in the soils of farms that had converted to organics ten years previously. Reading statistics such as these calls to mind the haunting long-term side effects of the notorious DDT pesticide of the 60s and 70s. DDT caused the decline of bald eagle populations through directly thinning their eggshells, killing their young. 

There are also studies which prove they directly impact human health. One pesticide has recently been directly linked to Parkinson’s Disease from research carried out at the University of Guelph. While it is banned in the EU, it is still permitted in many parts of the world, including the US.

The solution? Once more, it is not quite so simple; some of the insects in the world, such as grape berry moths and Japanese beetles, are capable of enormous destruction, even causing financial ruin for growers if they were to lose their crops. However, the systems approach, which involves learning the life cycles of problematic pests, together with cultural and biological controls as preventatives, is seeing massive strides being made. Insects can be fought with other insects, animals and birds. Without the insects, there would be no birds. Savoyard ornithologist Emmanuel Gfeller, who now works in the biodynamic vineyards of Domaine Curtet, believes chemical agriculture is one of the key causes for the decline of the populations of various species of birds in the Savoie. Through intensive chemical farming, which includes chemical viticulture, we are not only hurting the vine, but we are threatening the existence of entire species. 

The recalibration of the Yellowstone National Park’s entire ecosystem, caused by the reintroduction of the wolf, made headlines a few years ago. It shocked the world and provided hard evidence that human beings were throwing the natural balance of ecosystems off-kilter. 

In the One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka wrote simply,

“Observe Nature thoroughly rather than labour thoughtlessly.” 

These powerful words carry so much meaning. Our vineyards are simply microcosms of the Yellowstone National Park. Our wine choices must reflect our environmental choices. In choosing our wines carefully, we may keep our soils, our ecosystems, and eventually - ourselves - alive. 

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