What is Sustainable Viticulture?

What is Sustainable Winegrowing?

When trying to appreciate and understand a complicated topic like sustainable winegrowing, I find it helpful to study how it evolved.  Sustainable farming, organic farming, Biodynamic farming, and integrated pest management grew out of the same roots, so to speak.  So let’s examine how each developed over time.

Evolution of Organic Farming

When defining sustainable winegrowing/sustainable farming we need to look at the history of organic farming, since they share a common ancestry.  The present paradigm of organic farming began as a melding of several different schools of thought that were supported by European and English scientists active in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s.  As one would expect, opinions differ as to who really started the organic movement, with at least 2 people, both British, being bestowed the title of founder:  Lady Eve Balfour and Sir Albert Howard.  Both practitioners emphasized the role of a healthy, fertile soil in viable agriculture.  Howard developed many of his ideas in India prior to World War II where he was trying to meet the challenge of improving farmers’ yields in order to feed a rapidly increasing population.  He believed that the best way to increase food productivity at a moderate cost was to return the organic by-products of crop production as well as animal manures to the soil.  Howard also had concerns about the changes in soil chemistry caused by the use of synthetic fertilizers and the use of chemical pesticides to solve all pest problems. 

The Emergence of Sustainable Agriculture

In the 1950’s and 1960’s another movement, called the Green Revolution, evolved to meet the challenge of providing food for a rapidly expanding world population.  This movement met the challenge from a direction that was diametrically opposed to that of organic farming.  It emphasized genetically enhanced plant varieties and high energy off-farm inputs such as mechanization, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  In time this movement became ‘conventional’ agriculture and resulted in high food production at a low cost to the public.  As this movement developed some people became concerned that this type of agriculture could not be sustained in the long term.  They felt that although the cost of food production was low, the dollar value of food produced with conventional agriculture did not reflect the true cost from an ecosystem and societal perspective.  The true cost takes into consideration issues like air pollution from producing and using fossil fuels, soil degradation due to intense cultivation and use of synthetic fertilizers, habitat destruction, air and ground water contamination with fertilizers and pesticides, and the steady decrease of the farmer population as small family farms were out-competed by large corporate farms.  These concerns over the long-term sustainability of conventional agriculture accelerated the evolution of the sustainable agriculture movement, which owes many of its farming approaches to the organic farming movement.

Organic farming originally developed as a farming paradigm but over time some realized it could be a way to add value to produce and other agricultural products through marketing.  In other words a price premium could be achieved for organically grown food and other farm products.  This necessitated the development of certification programs to codify organic farming practices and verify they were being followed.  Unfortunately, as is the case with some marketing programs, a number of farmers bent or broke the rules of organic farming or even came up with their own interpretation of what constituted organic farming in order to get a price premium for their produce.  Other terms like ‘natural farming’ started showing up on produce labels and at farmers’ markets.   A point was reached in the US when stakeholders in the organic community felt a federally recognized organic farming program was necessary to ensure the credibility of the organic label.  They approached the US Department of Agriculture about the problem and the end result was the development of the National Organic Program.
 
With the development of organic certification programs, organic farming became codified and easily distinguished from other farming strategies.  However, as yet no one has attempted to codify sustainable agriculture at a national level.  Although recently the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has convened a committee to develop sustainable farming standards for all of US agriculture.  Due to the absence of a nationally recognized code of practices for sustainable agriculture there is an active debate among academics, farmers, environmentalists and others as to what defines sustainable agriculture and what practices are considered sustainable.  Some consider it to be a philosophy, others consider it to be a guideline for determining farm practices, some view it as a management strategy, and others argue about whether it is strictly related to farm production or also encompasses sociological issues.

In 1989 the American Agronomy Society adopted the following definition for sustainable agriculture:  “A sustainable agriculture is one that, over the long term, enhances environmental quality and the resource base on which agriculture depends; provides for basic human food and fiber needs; is economically viable; and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”  The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at University of California, Davis (UC SAREP) emphasizes that sustainable agriculture integrates 3 main goals—environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity.  UC SAREP also points out that a systems perspective is essential to understanding sustainable agriculture.  Farming does not operate in a vacuum.  Each farmer’s field is part of a complex community ecosystem, which in turn can effect or be impacted by global economics and even global ecological processes (eg. El Nino).  A systems perspective involves viewing multiple factors when considering field and farm-level decisions.

Where does Integrated Pest Management Fit In?

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) was developed in the late 1950’s to deal with some of the pest problems that in many ways can be attributed to the farming practices developed during the green revolution.  The use of genetically enhanced plant varieties and over reliance on pesticides to solve pest problems resulted in pesticide resistance, secondary pest outbreaks, as well as environmental contamination.  The formalization of IPM occurred several years before Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring.  IPM in the US came about because there were several crops, particularly alfalfa and cotton, which had developed unmanageable pest problems due to pesticide resistance and insecticide-induced secondary pest outbreaks.  Scientists working in these crops realized that the over-use of pesticides had brought them to this point and that the only solution was to integrate several control strategies and to reduce reliance on pesticides.  It turns out that IPM strategies fit right into the paradigm of sustainable agriculture and the environmental movement and thus has become an integral component of both.

Like sustainable farming, IPM has not been codified, and therefore can mean many things to many people.  A multitude of definitions has been proposed.  The one used by Lodi growers is:  “IPM is a sustainable approach to managing pests by combining biological, cultural and chemical tools in a way that minimizes economic, environmental and health risks.”  IPM can be thought of as a problem solving tool.  It is an approach to managing pest problems, just as sustainable agriculture is an approach to farming.  Like sustainable farming, a helpful way to understand it is to visualize it as a continuum from no IPM on one end to complete IPM on the other (see below).

Defining Sustainable Winegrowing

Although the concepts of sustainable farming, organic farming and IPM have been around for a long time they are still often misunderstood or interpreted according to one’s bias.  For example, a farmer dedicated to organic farming may not have the same definition of sustainable farming or IPM as someone who does not restrict their farming to organic methods.  It is important to realize that pest problems may still arise, even when practicing sustainable or organic farming and/or using IPM for managing pests problems.  That is because most crops are exotic (i.e. non-native) to the farms on which they are grown, and most pests on these crops are non-native, too.  Moreover, many of the plant parts we harvest for food contain the highest concentration of nutrients and carbohydrates which make them not only very useful for us but extremely attractive to many other organisms.  This creates a potentially unstable ecological situation regardless of the type of farming being practiced.  There are some crop/pest systems that are inherently unstable and crop damage is unavoidable without some outside intervention.  A good example is codling moth in many orchard crops.  Despite years of research in introducing natural enemies, developing mating disruption programs, and other sustainable techniques, it is still one of the major pests of many orchard crops.  Pests can even get out of hand in some fairly undisturbed, ‘natural’ ecosystems, as illustrated by periodic destructive epidemics of forest insects in certain forest ecosystems.

One helpful way to understand the paradigm of sustainable winegrowing is to visualize it as a continuum, from not sustainable on the one hand to complete sustainability on the other.  If an undisturbed natural system is the benchmark for complete sustainability one must realize that no farmer will be completely sustainable because the act of farming and exporting food products from the site disturbs the natural system and results in a nutrient drain no matter how sustainable are the practices.  Therefore, the goal of sustainable winegrowing should be continual improvement, in other words moving along the continuum toward a higher level of sustainability. 

In a real sense, sustainable farming is like being in a race that one will never win, or even finish, because perfect sustainability is not possible.  This thought can be very discouraging since as humans we want to reach an end point when we are doing something.  I encountered a statement recently while listening to a National Public Radio interview with Van Cliburn where he said the world of art is one where the horizon is always receding. I thought this statement was also a perfect way to express of the world of sustainable farming.  In other words, one will never reach complete sustainability because there is always room for improvement.  Moreover, new issues continue to arise, such as climate change due to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which show us that our sustainability horizon is farther away than we thought.

How do I define sustainable winegrowing?  I prefer to use the ideas formulated by the developers and practitioners of the sustainable farming and IPM movements.  It is a systems view of winegrape growing that considers soil building as the foundation, minimizes off-farm inputs, depends on economic profitability, and concerns itself with environmental health and social equity.  The California wine industry, more than any other agriculture sector in the US, has focused on developing an industry-wide sustainable farming program.  During the process they defined sustainable winegrowing as “growing and winemaking practices that are sensitive to the environment (environmentally sound), responsible to the needs and interests of society-at-large (socially equitable), and are economically feasible to implement and maintain (economically feasible)”.  This definition is often referred to as the three “E’s” of sustainability and is the one used in by Lodi growers and LWC’s sustainable winegrowing program. 

It is sometimes difficult to use the 3 E’s yardstick when evaluating the sustainability of an individual farming practice.  For example, it is difficult to talk about the social ramifications of releasing a parasite to control vine mealybug or the environmental soundness of doing a team building exercise with your employees.  However, the sustainability of a farm is measured by examining the sum total of all the practices implemented on the farm using the 3 E’s.

And finally, economics is going to dictate what sustainable practices can be implemented.  For example, the practices being implemented in a vineyard where the grapes are being sold at $400 per ton are going to be quite different to those that can be implemented in a vineyard where the grapes are being sold for $4,000 per ton.

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