When Should You Not Be Allowed to Be Biodynamic?

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Spraying biodynamic teas at Seresin Vineyards, Marlborough, NZ

As the father of a kindergartener it will come as no surprise to you that of late I have been immersed in a world of debate and discussion around the many issues that shape educational, health, and social policy, at least as five-year-olds are concerned. Not only that, as a family we have been subject to any number of new restrictions and requirements that come from participating in the particular school system that we have chosen to patronize.

One of those new requirements is as simple as it is blunt. In order to enroll our daughter in the school of our choice she must be fully immunized against all of the common contagious childhood diseases for which we have proven vaccines. This requirement is as much for all the other children as it is for our daughter, and consequently if we were not to comply, the consequences would be quite simple: we wouldn’t be able to send our daughter to the school she attends.

Society has long depended upon a web of conventions and regulations that promote the peace, harmony, and health of the society as a whole. Indeed, one could say that the rise and adoption of such social compacts and laws represents the genesis of anything called society in the first place.

While a certain fringe debate the point, it is altogether reasonable to expect, and in some circumstances require, members of a society or a community to make choices in their own lives that confer an equal or greater benefit to the society as a whole. Whether it means throwing our garbage in receptacles instead of on our lawns, using toilets instead of any bare patch of ground, or immunizing ourselves and children against infectious disease, we do so, and should do so because it is better for everyone if we do. In the United States at least, Religious beliefs, no matter how stringent, are not enough to justify behaviors to the contrary according a number of legal rulings.

Even though it is not as compulsory as a polio vaccine, everyone should get flu shots for the same reason. They not only reduce your chances of getting the flu, they make it that much less likely that other people will get it, too.

Such thinking is no doubt behind the recent pending prosecution of Beaune winemaker Emmanuel Giboulot, who according to Decanter stands to be charged €30,000 and serve a six-month prison term because he refuses to treat his vineyards in Burgundy for a disease known as Flavesence Dorée.

Giboulot farms his vines biodynamically, a farming regimen and philosophy that fundamendally rejects the use of the kind of synthetic pesticide that the commune of Beaune is insisting he use on his vines.

Flavesence dorée is an incurable grapevine disease that is spread by small insects called leafhoppers. If these insects munch on the leaves of an infected plant, and then move to another vine, they transmit the bacteria which cause the disease, much as mosquitos transmit malaria in humans.

When a vine is infected by Flavesence Dorée, the leaves yellow and the grapes shrivel before ripening. It can take some time before the disease manifests fully in the vine, but when it does fully, it almost always makes the vine worthless and unproductive, at least as far as wine is concerned.

Almost half of the entire country of France is under a compulsory edict to apply insecticides to its vineyards to kill leafhoppers in an attempt to slow the spread and impact of the disease.

But as a biodynamic farmer, Giboulot understandably opposes the use of this insecticide, and has so far refused to apply it to his vineyards, even when ordered to do so by the local equivalent of the ministry of agriculture.

On the surface, this situation seems identical to requiring all children to be immunized before attending school. Giboulot’s position could easily be seen as the analogue of Christian Scientist parents who prefer to rely on faith healing rather than let their child with cancer see a traditional doctor. Society has decided that this is unacceptable.

The catch here is that this insecticide that Giboulot is being asked to spray doesn’t actually solve the problem. Does it partially counter the spread of the disease by killing leafhoppers? Yes. Is it 100% effective? Far from it, much less than a common flu shot, let alone curing the disease. It seems as much, if not more spread of the disease occurs when infected plant material is used to plant new vineyards. Interestingly, carefully treating grapevine cuttings with hot water can kill the disease, a practice that is now becoming de rigeur in France.

France is not the only country dealing with the threat of Flavesence Dorée and in many other countries, compulsory spraying of insecticide has not been adopted as the de facto solution. Austria, for instance, has stated quite clearly that such an approach doesn’t make sense.

In light of this, the threat to prosecute Giboulot seems a lot more dubious. Can we really tell winemakers that they can’t be biodynamic or organic when we think that by violating their philosophy of winemaking they might benefit the larger winegrowing community as a whole. It’s not an easy question to answer in black and white terms.

While some communities have decided to legislate the use of proven cures to the scourges that crippled and decimated our populations in prior centuries, as well as to prevent smoking in restaurants, none have yet threatened to throw you in jail for failing to get a flu shot or for smoking on the sidewalk.

Currently the only (temporary) solution for Flavesence Dorée seems to be to rip out the vines and replace them with vines that aren’t infected. Which I’m sure Giboulot would rather do than douse his vineyards with chemicals.

Emmanuel Giboulot and his vineyards next to more conventional plantings. Photo by Betrand Celce.
Read about Bert’s visit to Giboulot here.

Comments (8):

  1. David White

    November 27, 2013 at 5:04 PM

    This could easily inspire a fascinating conversation. For instance, it’s worth noting that while he’s fighting a government edict on one hand, “Burgundy” as a wine region only EXISTS because of said government.

  2. Michael Grant

    November 28, 2013 at 2:45 AM

    I don’t see that anyone is saying that he or any other winemaker can’t be biodynamic or organic. However, when a situation arises like this and the grapegrower or winemaker chooses not only not to do what is prescribed but does nothing at all then he should be prepared to accept the consequences. He obviously isn’t choosing to rip out and burn the infected vines and re-establish his vineyard. A very hard and costly decision admittedly. But he should do something to remove the problem. You suggest that jail is not appropriate. However, the punishment might be a reflection of the community’s grave concern for this problem and the consequences to all other vineyards around his vineyard.

  3. Alder

    November 28, 2013 at 7:40 AM

    Thanks for the comments. The point about not being biodynamic is that if he sprays then he cannot be biodynamic. Both philosophically and practically. If he sprays he cannot label or sell his wines as biodynamic. It’s like a kosher Jew eating pork. Non-starter.

  4. ML

    December 2, 2013 at 6:21 AM

    In Texas, I can send my unvaccinated child to public school for “reason of conscience”. Many people do this for other reasons than religious reasons.

  5. David DeSante

    December 2, 2013 at 6:19 PM

    Please direct Msr. Giboulot to Gerard Gauby of Domaine Gauby in France’s Rousillon (e-mail: les.gauby.S@wanadoo.fr.). Msr. Gauby has had success with biodynamic methods (herbal tea application) in discouraging the flavescence doree vector, Schaphoidus littoralis.
    In addition, he would be well served to contact the French government-backed agricultural research stations (INRA) at Antibes and Dijon where they have been researching the natural insect predators for the vector.
    There should be a way for him to satisfy his duty to the community and his commitment to the land.

  6. Adam Lee

    December 4, 2013 at 5:57 AM

    It might be worth checking out this study, from Austria, with regard to the spread of FD. The report you link to was in 2004, prior to any outbreak in Austria. That has changed. http://www.hcphs.hr/UserDocsImages/zzb/FD_Zagreb_2013/FD_Croatia_2013-conclusions.pdf
    Also, one issue with the hot water dipping of plants is that it only works if they are planted in non-infected soil. Not sure what treatments you’d have to do to the soil….and how long you might have to wait after such treatments to call the wines from a place biodynamic.
    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  7. Alissa

    December 4, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    I dont know enough about flavescence dorée to know the answer to this, but on the surface, at least, it seems that a partial treatment could be not only an ineffective solution, but a potentially dangerous one.. Is there a risk of mutation if only part of the population is impacted by the treatment, the equivalent of bacteria gaining resistance when only a weak or semi-effective antibiotic is applied, because only the weakest members of the population are killed off, and the stronger ones, which have resistance to the treatment, are allowed to continue to reproduce, infect, and mutate further to become even more resistant? Like I said, I don’t have the background on the disease to know.. but I’d be curious if this is a relevant concern.

  8. Anders Öhman

    January 5, 2014 at 1:39 AM

    The pesticide that Mr Giboulot refuses to use is Pyrevert which is 100% organic.

Comments are closed.