Pesticides, you and your health! A letter to our neighbors and our employees
What is the ideal distance between a vineyard and a house? What buffer-zone should be respected to ensure that residents and water streams are not the victims of pesticides? This is a question that requires much more than a simplistic answer because the “good solutions” envisaged can be misleading.
Risk = danger x exposure
We approach the question from both a technical and scientific point of view. Any pesticide, whether it is natural and organic or synthetic, for professional or consumer use, is evaluated by government health agencies. All cultivation methods use pesticides: organic, conventional or integrated farming.
Risk is the result of danger and exposure. The dangerous effects of all products are evaluated and scored according to the same criteria. It is therefore easy to compare plant protection products (pesticides) with household products. In the homologation files, exposure is also taken into account: for those using the products and for local residents as well as passers-by. In fact, the risk is evaluated in its entirety.
Agriculture, France and food
We must take a look at history. At the end of the Second World War, farmers were given the mission of feeding the population. Europe was just rising, and decided to accompany them in their work. The necessary increase in production levels in order to avoid famine were accompanied by the development of an agro-chemical industry developed by pharmaceutical companies; stemming from the fact that the active ingredients used to treat humans, animals and plants have many similarities.
The first pesticides developed were certainly effective against diseases and pests, but they also carried a particularly high level of danger for humans and the environment. Their use has been illegal for a long time now. The awareness of the necessity to protect both users and the environment dates back to the 80s. Since then, the industry and the legislator – whether French or European – have constantly improved the profile of plant protection products. Many pesticides have already been eliminated, including all of those with proven danger. Regulations are becoming tougher, the rules for certification are becoming more demanding. Every 10 years, products must be re-assessed through an official homologation process. The criteria for approval are constantly being updated to take into account new knowledge and data.
Let us not forget that people involved in agriculture – the first to be concerned by exposure to pesticides – are made aware of the potential dangers and trained for their use (ongoing professional training is required). In addition to which, plant protection products are expensive and this is another reason why they are used wisely.
How to choose a pesticide?
To choose a pesticide, a winemaker takes into consideration several factors, the primary concern is risk:
1. Pesticide hazard for humans (toxicological classification):
- CMR classification (Cancerogenic, Mutagenic, Toxic for reproduction):
- Substances with proven CMR classification have already been eliminated from the market. These are CMR1.
- For some substances the CMR character has not been scientifically proven, but a doubt remains. As a precaution, they have been classified as CMR2.
For comparison, unleaded gasoline, accessible to all and without any special protection is classified CMR1. The danger it presents is the same as that of the most dangerous pesticides that have been removed from the market.
- Other classification criteria:
- Irritating by skin contact and inhalation,
- Severe eye irritation…
These risks are comparable to those found in commonly used household products.
- Unclassified products: these are the ones that will be used as a priority
2. Environmental hazard of the pesticide:
- Potential toxicity for aquatic organisms,
- Potential toxicity for wildlife (including insects and bees).
3. Then the regulatory constraints regarding the use of the pesticide:
- ZNT: the No Treatment Zone corresponds to the distance that the grower has to respect between his vineyard and water (streams, ponds…)
- DRE: the Re-Entry Delay is the required delay before walking or driving in a vineyard plot after treatment.
Before having recourse to the use of pesticides, or to limit their use, prophylactic measures are specifically employed. The winegrower selects his pesticides according to the method of cultivation and sometimes the specific type of viticulture he has chosen to follow: conventional, reasoned, organic…
Is an organic pesticide the guarantee of safety for man of the environment?
No, an organic pesticide is not classified according to its lack of impact on humans or the environment but according to whether it is a molecule or active ingredient that can be found in nature. It is then reproduced by industry. “Organic” does not mean “good for health”. For example, a wine or vodka can be organic and yet it contains a proven potent carcinogen: alcohol. Here are some examples of widely used organic pesticides:
- Sulphur helps fighting powdery mildew, it is present in nature in mines and volcanoes. However, the vast majority of sulphur we use today comes from petroleum refining. Sulphur is extracted from crude oil, shale, or bitumen. From an industry generally identified as very polluting one, we extract an organic pesticide! This petrochemical product is classified as irritating to humans. According to its formulation, the recommended DRE (re-entry delay) into the vineyard after treatment ranges from 6 to 48 hours.
- Sexual confusion also benefits from the organic label and reproduces a natural phenomenon. 500 plastic capsules per hectare of a pheromone, Acetate Dodecadienyl, reproduce a female insect smell in the vineyard, however the male cannot find the females, there is no mating therefore no worms which could eat into the skin of the grapes. This pesticide has an H315 classification (causes skin irritation) and H411 (toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects).
- Copper is widely used in organic viticulture to control downy mildew. Depending on its formulation, it can be very dangerous for both humans and the environment. This organic pesticide has a non-treatment zone of 5 to 50 meters and a re-entry delay of 6 to 48 hours. Copper is banned in the Netherlands and Denmark in agriculture. It is a heavy metal, broad-spectrum fungicidal and bactericidal. It is not biodegradable and accumulates in soils.
- Sweet orange essential oil is also used against powdery mildew, however it is a pesticide that is classified as harmful to humans and toxic to aquatic environments, and is subject to a 24 hour re-entry delay after its application.
Due to the nature of pesticides used in organic farming, the protection of a culture by this method of production requires a greater number of treatments.
Are there harmless synthetic pesticides?
Yes, advances in scientific research have allowed the development of very specific new active substances, acting on a particular functional mechanism of a disease or a pest. Thus, man and the environment are not impacted. Today, although in development, these new technical tools alone cannot yet ensure the complete protection of a culture. If a product that has been proven dangerous, it is clearly labelled.
For others, however, doubts persist. The cocktail effect (combination of several products) is little known, but, because of doubts as to the safety of these mixtures, precautionary measures are in place and some mixtures are prohibited. Endocrine disrupting effects were poorly evaluated, but knowledge and regulations have changed. Each year, the toxicological classification, the ZNT, the DRE become more stringent, and all pesticides are reviewed during their homologation process or their re-examination process. Thus, Rotenone organic insecticide has been withdrawn from the market after many years of use as it is suspected to increase the risk of having Parkinson’s disease.
So, what is the solution to protect yourself? A buffer zone of 5 meters, 10 meters, 150 meters?
No buffer zone is able to guarantee that a neighbor or water stream will not be exposed to the effects of the products depending on climatic conditions. However, these exposure conditions have supposedly been assessed in the context of the approval.
The solution is not to replace a dangerous synthetic molecule with a dangerous molecule of natural origin. The true “organic” farmer is the one that will look to nature for solutions and not isolated molecules. We planted a vineyard in agroforestry mode and created a permaculture garden for our staff. The solution lies in the very mechanisms that nature has put in place to regenerate and defend itself. At our estate, an independent engineer travels the entire vineyard every 10 days and shares his observations and advice. We have excluded CMR pesticides. We use a confined treatment device that has significantly reduced drift and pesticide quantities by 30% and we choose the pesticide with the least impact and the one which will require the least fuel to spread using our tractors in order to minimize climate impact. It is our commitment to work in a reasoned way, we feel that we have the lowest overall environmental impact possible, and try to expose our neighbors, our employees and our families as little as possible. We do not hesitate to combine the best of ancestral practices and recent technical developments.
Sustainable farming without any pesticides is just rising. Will it ever exist? We will plant vines which are naturally resistant to diseases such as mildew, we must drastically reduce treatments in the vineyard. Whatever the cultivation method, organic, conventional or integrated, we must allow time and opportunity for agriculture to nurture and shape our landscapes by accepting compromises until the truly “good solutions” are available. The first of the actions is the one we are already implementing: to seek the best for both human health and the environment, using the methods and tools available, whether natural or not. Let’s take advantage of the technical advances that are signs of progress in this area. Good for health is not necessarily good for the environment and vice versa: it is therefore a question of measuring and minimizing the impact on these two levers.
The main danger is the lack of knowledge, to be unknowingly exposed to potentially harmful products is unbearable, if true organic agriculture has great prospects, the current specifications that nobody reads are a long way from meeting the health expectations of local populations. Organic pesticides from natural origin must be mistrusted in the same way as synthetic pesticides.
So how do you know what you’re being exposed to? We must start by talking with our farmer neighbors. Together, we will find solutions and restore shared trust.