Weeding Out a Killer

Serious health concerns about the commonly used herbicide glyphosate are driving a trend towards non-chemical vineyard alternatives.
Max Allen
ben hansen

Travel through any Australian wine region in spring and it’s easy to spot which grape growers are spraying herbicide in their vineyards. The telltale sign is a pallid yellow strip running under the vine rows, where the grass and weeds lie flat and lifeless.

Not all growers use weed killer. Some let sheep into the vineyard to nibble the grass down. Some employ mechanical weeders to turn the soil. Some spread a layer of mulch to suppress under-vine growth. But the easiest option is to spray with herbicide, and this is still the most common practice in the industry.

Not perhaps for much longer, though. International pressure is mounting to ban the use of synthetic chemical herbicides due to concerns about the negative health effects on both humans and the environment.

One herbicide, glyphosate, has come under intense scrutiny. As the ABC’s Four Corners program outlined last October, giant agrichemical company Monsanto, which manufactures the top-selling Roundup brand of weed killer, is facing serious
challenges to its claims about the product’s safety.

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reviewed hundreds of scientific studies of glyphosate, concluding that it should be classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. The European Parliament voted in 2017 to phase out glyphosate in agriculture by 2022.

In August 2018, a jury in the US found that not only had Roundup contributed to a school groundskeeper’s cancer, but that Monsanto had failed to warn people of the risks of using it. The court ordered the company to pay US$289 million (A$408 million) in damages, since reduced to US$78.5 million (A$111 million). And in October, Cancer Council Australia called on the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), the body which regulates agrichemicals, to conduct a review of glyphosate, something that hasn’t been done since 1995.

So, how widespread is glyphosate use in Australian vineyards, and how is the industry responding to these developments? “Glyphosate is the most commonly used herbicide in the Australian wine industry,” says Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) business development manager, Mark Krstic. “So, we’ve been following developments very closely since the IARC report came out in 2015.”

The AWRI provides information and technical support to the industry in a number of areas, including the use of agrichemicals. The institute publishes an annual booklet – known colloquially as The Dog Book – listing those chemicals approved for use in the production of wine destined for export.

Krstic says that the AWRI’s list of approved chemicals is informed by guidelines issued by the regulator, the APVMA. But because of the list’s export focus, it notes chemicals that
are allowed in Australia but not allowed in overseas markets. “So, hypothetically, if glyphosate was banned in the EU, there would be a strong recommendation to take it out of our schedule of use, and to look at other herbicides and management options instead,” says Krstic.

The problem is that glyphosate has become so commonplace in Australian vineyards that an industry-wide move to “other options” would be difficult, not least because other types of under-vine management – and other herbicides – are more expensive. As a result, many growers would not welcome a ban. “Any sudden change to the existing regulations relating to glyphosate would be disruptive and costly,” said Anna Hooper, CEO of Australian Vignerons, the peak body for grape growers. “While we appreciate the public concerns that the (Four Corners) report has raised, we strongly advocate for a risk-based, scientific approach to guide regulatory decisions.”

Nevertheless, some growers have already weaned themselves off herbicides and adopted alternative farming methods, before a change of regulations forces them to. And there are signs that the number of growers heading in this direction is increasing.

“We run national workshops and get hundreds of growers attending,” said Krstic. “And we are seeing a trend towards softer viticulture, a trend towards people stepping back from synthetics and growing grapes along quasi-organic lines.”

As international concern over glyphosate intensifies, this trend may gain even more momentum.