Are there Pesticides in your Wine and Should you Care?
Anish Patel @ 2022-07-06 11:30:40 -0700
It’s time to get to the bottom of the issue of pesticides in wine. Pesticides are substances that control pest populations in any crop, but they are widely used to grow the grapes that get made into wine. They reduce damage and prevent entire crops from being ruined, and they’re pretty good at their job.
Some pesticides kill pests, others simply repel them or inhibit their growth. In wine, the use of chemical pesticides is a very, very common practice. Conventional winemakers almost always use them to maximize their profit. But organic and sustainable winemakers are taking an entirely different route, and it’s important that you, as a consumer, understand why.
The subject of pesticides in wine is complex, but there are some very clear truths about the effects of using chemical treatments on any land. For sustainable winemakers, opting out of this practice is a no-brainer.
Concerns about food and safety and even a growing mistrust of how well the government regulates the use of toxins in food have led to a growing interest in organic farming. This interest has expanded into the wine world, and winemakers have responded with enthusiasm. So if pesticides are a concern for you, this guide is designed to help you understand how pesticides work in the world of wine, and how you can find clean wine.
Does wine have pesticides?
Pesticide residue consistently shows up in samples of wine made by conventional winemakers, and even sometimes, in organic wine. However, levels are so small that the EPA has deemed this residue to be below the level of toxicity and therefore safe for consumption. But the story doesn’t end there.
Some pesticides remain in the grape stems and seeds as they make their way through fermentation, and others dissipate before they make it to the bottle. But even though levels are low, the cause for concern isn’t only for the consumer. Pesticides are harmful to the environment, and they’re toxic to farmhands.
Who uses synthetic pesticides?
Conventional winemakers use fungicides to eliminate fungal diseases, pesticides to keep insects from ravaging their vineyards, and herbicides to kill weeds. Grapevines are very, very vulnerable to disease, rot, and pest attacks. Mitigating this risk naturally is risky, extremely labor-intensive, here’s the kicker: it costs a lot more money. Conventional winemakers typically prioritize profit over anything else, so sustainable farming is a no-go.
A survey of pesticides in wine in Switzerland found that out of 176 conventionally wine samples, 95% had trace amounts of pesticides. Organic wines show a much lower rate of residue at 41.4%.
Why is synthetic pesticide residue in organic wine showing up? Because pesticide residue drifts from neighboring fields. This is why eliminating pesticides must be a collective, community effort. It isn’t an individual choice.
Still, organic, biodynamic, and sustainable winemakers opt to use more labor-intensive, expensive methods of protecting vines from pest damage, and occasionally may use organic sprays.
Are pesticides harmful?
Studies on the effect of pesticides on the environment and the people exposed often result in contradictory conclusions. To understand this, lets look at a widely used pesticide called glyphosate. Let’s take a look at what we know so far about glyphosate.
Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide. This means that it kills anything you spray it with by preventing plants from developing the proteins they need to grow. Glyphosate is used in all kinds of crops and is commonly found in conventional vineyards. The EPA’s current stance on this particular herbicide is that there are no found health risks. Still, there are significant reasons to avoid it.
Glyphosate has been studied and the results raise an eyebrow. Initially, the World Health Organization (WHO) evaluated glyphosate and found that it’s not a cancer-causing substance. But in 2017 a committee of scientists working for the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the WHO collected new data and determined that the herbicide is “probably carcinogenic.”
Other studies have suggested that glyphosate might be linked to greater oxidative stress, inflammation, disrupted estrogen pathways, impaired cerebral function, and certain cancers. A study that sampled dairy cows found that it correlated to higher risks of kidney and liver damage.
The most important conclusion from this information is that more research is needed.
Pesticides disrupt the ecosystem in major ways.
One thing that’s crystal clear: chemically treating land just isn’t good for the land. The entire ecosystem including the soil, water, and animals is weakened by introducing pesticides like glyphosate, which binds tightly to the soil that it’s sprayed with. We know that glyphosate in particular remains in the soil for 6 months until it’s eventually broken down by bacteria.
To understand how pesticides devastated the ecosystem, we need to look no further than the bees. Recent bee declines are potentially catastrophic for industries that rely on pollination—a whopping 90% of the world’s food relies on bees to pollinate crops.
And over the last several years, a rapid decline in bee populations has been widely documented and linked to a few factors: poor nutrition, habitat loss, and pesticide exposure.
Bees consume pesticides when they fly through fields that chemically treat crops. They consume it directly by drinking contaminated pollen, nectar, and water. And populations are disappearing at dangerous rates. This could potentially be very dangerous for our food system. Still, farmers bear the brunt of the consequences as the cost of doing business has almost tripled since bee colonies started collapsing in 2004.
Natural winemakers know that healthy, complex wines come from healthy soil. And soaking the soil with chemical treatments kills vital microorganisms and bacteria, resulting in weaker vines. While it’s certainly a quick and easy fix to a pesky problem, it’s harmful in the long run.
Farmhands and farmers are poisoned by pesticides.
Pesticides are dangerous to work with. Studies have shown that farmhands can be impacted by not only working directly with pesticides but also by drift from neighboring fields. In 2021, a study showed that almost half of all farmhands will experience at least one acute incident of pesticide poisoning per year. 11,000 people die annually from poisoning.
Exposure can happen through the skin, eyes, or lungs. It can happen from touching plants or soil that are still wet with spray. It can cause burning of the mouth, throat, nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting. Studies have linked pesticide exposure to cancers and learning disabilities in farmworkers.
Many farmhands aren’t properly trained on how to use pesticides, and laws don’t protect them from exposure. Even with safe practices, spray drift from neighboring fields is inhaled on the job and even settles on their clothes, which causes them to expose their families. This means that the people working not only to make your wine but also your food is in harm's way.
The only way to avoid this is to eliminate exposure to pesticides in the vineyard.
How natural wine eliminates synthetic pesticide use.
Glyphosate and other synthetic pesticides are banned in organic farming. Sustainable winemakers choose to spend more time and work treating their vines with natural practices that don’t disturb the environment or risk poisoning their community.
They use compost, manure, and cover crops to fertilize their land. They use mechanical weeding rather than herbicides. They employ livestock to regulate the insect populations. It’s not easy work and from a business standpoint, it’s way riskier than chemical treating. But it supports the ecosystem rather than weakening it. Wine is a tricky crop to make a living from, which makes sustainability a true act of courage.
You can help by drinking natural wine.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could impact environmental health by drinking wine?
Your power in encouraging the shift towards natural winemaking practices and away from pesticide use is in how you choose to shop. As consumers respond the market listens. New Zealand has set industry standards to encourage winemakers to use alternatives to pesticides, a move that wouldn’t have happened without consumer demand.
If you want to minimize your exposure to synthetic pesticides and be a part of the natural wine movement, visit local wine stores or follow online natural retailers to choose a wine that is made sustainably. The growing interest in pesticide-free food has allowed natural wine to find a place on shelves and online stores, making it easier than ever for you to find them.
Want natural wine delivered to your door? Shop our selection of delicious natural wines made with organic grapes.