Opinion and Analysis For Members

OPINION: Why the French wine industry could be seriously bad for our health

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
OPINION: Why the French wine industry could be seriously bad for our health
French vineyards are heavy users of pesticides. Photo AFP

France likes to think of its food and its wine as rooted in the soil and soaked in tradition. It boasts of its farm produce as authentic and life-affirming. But there is another story, writes John Lichfield.


A cluster of events reminds us that French agriculture - and especially the French wine industry - is amongst the most polluting and the most chemically dependent in the world.


A farmer spraying pesticide in southern France. Photo: AFP

There have been disturbing new reports on the impact of vineyard pesticides on human health and the devastating implication of agricultural chemicals on French insect and bird life.

There are unresolved questions about the role of pesticides in an epidemic of babies born without arms in farming areas of western and eastern France and in Brittany.

There has been a row over a report published this week by a group of French senators denying that Glyphosate (Roundup), the world’s most used herbicide is cancer-producing. At the same time, a jury in California awarded two billion US dollars  in damages, against Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup, in  a landmark law-suit brought by a cancer-stricken couple who had used the weed-killer for 30 years.

Farmers and wine producers in all developed countries use insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, but French farmers seem more addicted than most.

I once stood in the Burgundy vineyard with a furious wine grower as a light aircraft dive-bombed neighbouring plots with clouds of pesticide.

“I refuse to use that stuff but it blows everywhere,” he said. “My vines are supposed to be organic but they get dosed all the same.”

This was no obscure part of the Burgundy vineyards. It was in Puligny-Montrachet, which produces some of the most prized and expensive white wines in the world.

I also remember visiting a much-lauded Bordeaux producer who had gone over to organic production of his Haut-Médoc wines.

“We go on endlessly in France about the importance of terroir – the special mineral qualities of certain soils – and then we fill the soil with all kinds of toxic rubbish,” he told me. “It makes life easier, yes, but it’s a betrayal of everything we are supposed to stand for.”

Many French wine producers have gone the organic route in recent years for exactly this reason. Nonetheless, wine and cereals, two of the great export successes of French agriculture, remain the most intensive users of pesticides in a chemically-addicted industry.

France is the third biggest user of agricultural pesticides in the world and the biggest in Europe. Around 2,500 products are used on French farms, orchards and vineyards to protect the crops from weeds, fungi and to a lesser extent insects.

Vineyards make up 3.7 per cent of the agricultural land in France but use 20 per cent of the pesticides.

Without them, producers say, you can still grow stuff but much less, more expensively and with greater labour and greater risks of failure. If consumers want cheap food, and if France wants to remain a leading food exporter, pesticides are essential, they say.

A Senate report a year ago revealed that several government initiatives to reduce the chemical-dependency of French farming had failed. Almost all French watercourses and two thirds of underground water sources contain various degrees of pesticide residues.

Many French vineyard owners are now switching to organic production, but it's hard to avoid sprayed chemicals. Photo: AFP

Over 64 per cent of French fruit and 34 per cent of vegetables contain pesticide traces - 6 per cent of them above the maximum authorised limit.

In 2007 the French government decided that these levels must be reduced by half by 2018.  The drive failed. The target date is now 2026.

Several French and international scientific studies have established probable links between pesticides and cancer and other diseases including Parkinsons. The French medical institutes INSERM estimates the probability of a link with cancer at 80 per cent. Exposure to cocktails of various pesticides is regarded  as especially dangerous.

Farmers and their families are the first at risk. But there are growing fears for the health of other people living near to cereals farms and vineyards which regularly use chemical sprays to treat their crops.

As much as 50 per cent of the chemicals sprayed on crops, from helicopters, planes or other machinery, miss their target and spread into the surrounding countryside or atmosphere, according to a study by the Institut national de recherche agronomique (INRA).  A recent investigation found traces of 80 different agricultural pesticides in the air in Paris.

A possible link between pesticides and the rash of births of deformed babies in Ain, Brittany and Loire-Atlantique is under investigation. No formal connection has been established but campaigners point out that many of the mothers lived in houses surrounded by cereals fields which were systematically sprayed with pesticides.

There have also been new protests in recent days about possible links between vineyard sprays and cancer. At Preignac, a village in Gironde with 2,000 inhabitants, the rate of cancer among children is six times the national level. The village school is surrounded by vines.

The impact of pesticides on insect and bird life is even more devastating - and more clearly established. This is a global problem but especially acute in France whose fauna remained rich until two decades ago.

Recent studies suggest that 30 per cent of birds in agricultural areas and up to 85 per cent of some insect species have vanished in the last two or three decades.

A new government action plan – the third in 12 years – is under preparation. Retail sales of glyphosate were banned on 1 January this year but will still remain available to French farmers for another five years.

Five years is too long. Glyphosate is just one of 2,500 products. It is time for the French government and especially the farm industry to bring the brutal reality of French farming in line with their “soil, tradition and quality” propaganda.

As one farmer said in last year’s Senate report on pesticides: “We are supposed to be the source of life. We can’t also be sowing death.”


Comments (1)

Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

Anonymous 2019/06/03 19:49
Very interesting article and truly eye opening.

See Also