Looking Beyond Organic Certification

I’m often asked when leading guests on a tour in the vineyard whether Dodon is “organic,” or at least aspires to be certified as an organic vineyard. It’s a fair question. In many ways, we fit the common image of organic farmers. On a summer visit, you will find our vineyard team out with hoes, clippers, and other hand tools, carefully cultivating the soil and tending the vines. Regulations governing organic certification require practices that are standard operating procedures at Dodon, such as use of organic composts, mechanical weeding, and use of biological controls for insect pests. These methods are labor intensive and expensive, and they illustrate our commitment to sustainability, ecologically-friendly practices, and a balanced ecosystem.

But the answer to the question is no. Dodon is not, and does not aspire to be, certified as an organic vineyard.

Despite the pastoral image of the organic farmer, the main difference between organically certified and conventional agriculture is the use of synthetic pesticides. Organic certification standards allow use of non-synthetic, and a few synthetic, chemicals, while conventional agriculture does not have any restrictions regarding use of synthetic compounds. Because non-synthetic substances are derived from biological (e.g., Bacillus thuringiensis toxin), botanical (e.g., neem and pyrethrins), or other sources (e.g., minerals such as sulfur and copper), they are considered more “natural.”

But non-synthetic chemicals are still chemicals, and they are often toxic to non-target organisms, including people. Take pyrethrins, a group of six naturally occurring substances derived from Chrysanthemums. These plant extracts have been used as insecticides for millennia, and depending on the specific extraction methods, many are certified for organic use. Pyrethrins are highly effective against a broad range of insect pests. Unfortunately, they are also highly toxic to beneficial insects, such as honey bees and other pollinators, much more so than many synthetic insecticides that target a narrower range of insects.

Because the real differences between conventional and organically-certified agriculture are small, some of the most ecologically-minded farmers have chosen to forego certification. They believe that meeting certification requirements is a diversion from the real objective to produce healthy food in a sustainable manner and may be detrimental to the crop and the environment. When Polly and I were in California last summer, we visited one such farmer, Bob Cannard, at Green String Farm whose produce is served at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ well known Berkeley restaurant. Bob is widely known for his visionary, yet radically unconventional, approach to growing fruits and vegetables.

Bob Cannard with students at Green String Institute. If you look closely you will see the vegetables (our half) among the diverse cover crops (nature’s half).

Bob believes that healthy, tasty, nutritionally complete plants are the result of a large and diverse population of microorganisms in the soil. These microbes fix nitrogen, digest carbon containing organic matter, secrete acids that break down rocks into minerals, and protect roots from invading pests. Creating this diversity requires that we renew the soil with a complex diet of composts, shells, rocks, and decomposing plant material from diverse forbs that also provide habitat for beneficial insects. Bob summarizes it with the phrase, “Half for you, half for nature.” Failure to feed nature its portion leads to imbalanced and depleted soil, unhealthy plants, and inferior food.

None of this diversity and balance is required for organic certification. Most of the organic produce in your local grocery store comes from farms that may meet certification requirements, but they are just as sterile as conventional farms. These farms are home to single crops treated with (organic) chemicals such as sulfur and copper that reduce microbiological life in the soils. In the extreme, some organically certified produce is now grown indoors in water supplemented with nutrients, no soil or biodiversity required.

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Cabernet Franc vines after the 2014 harvest in Dodon’s experimental vineyard. The vines on the left, treated using standard pesticides as recommended by the extension service, defoliated following infection with Downy Mildew. The organically treated vines on the right held their leaves much longer, but note the telltale blue tint of the copper.

Our trials at Dodon, done in partnership with Virginia Tech plant pathologist Mizuho Nita, convinced me that while we could successfully produce high quality fruit in most years using methods that would allow organic certification, the environmental costs would exceed those associated with a more ecologically-based program that includes judicious use of synthetic pesticides. For example, while copper adequately protected the vines from fungal pests, it required very high doses that would in the long run poison the soil and reduce microbial life. And a combination of pyrethrins and pepper spray reduced Japanese beetle pressure, but we had to apply it three times a week, reducing beneficial insect levels and creating more problems.

None of this discussion should be taken as criticism of the organic farming movement. By and large, it’s a big step in the right direction. But because the methods required for certification did not advance our environmental or winemaking goals, we’ve chosen to look beyond organic agriculture to a more ecologically friendly approach. In future posts, I’ll talk about what we are doing to create a sustainable, balanced ecosystem that is rich in diverse bacterial, insect, and plant species. We hope that these new techniques will result in healthier vines, earlier ripening, and better wine, all with fewer chemicals, organic or otherwise.

January 04th, 2017 Posted by Tom Filed in: Farming, History, People, Science, Sustainability