Pesticides Threat to Champagne Water Quality

France leading way to ban pesticides. What’s in your water? 

Pesticides Threat to Champagne Water Quality

Intensive agricultural practices are causing concern as chemicals reach the water table.

By Caroline Henry

A hot, dry summer has left pesticide levels in Champagne’s groundwater at dangerous levels, according to a local study, raising fears about the region’s water quality.

The extensive use of pesticides – including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides – in the region is causing serious concerns to the water quality of the region. According to a study conducted by the local water agency, Eau Seine et Normandie, the chemical residues found both in the surface and ground water in the Champagne area regularly exceed European authorized levels, both for individual chemical molecules and chemical compounds.

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According to Daniel Beddelem, regional director for the Marne area of Eau Seine et Normandy, part of the reason is that the Seine has one of the smallest water flows of all French rivers, yet the water requirements of the region are extremely high at around 3 billion cubic meters per year. That combination means that the dilution capacity is limited in comparison with other regions.

Pollution levels have reached such toxic levels that a study earlier this year estimated that some 2.8 million people in France – mostly in areas where there is intensive agriculture, such as Champagne and the southwest of France – were drinking polluted tap water as a result of pesticides and nitrates leaching into the water table.

A study conducted in 2013, and updated in 2016, shows that pesticides remain the most important threat (with 54 percent of the total) to the degradation of the groundwater quality. Herbicides, particularly glyphosate, remain the largest culprit among the pesticides. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that it takes several years for the chemical traces to completely disappear from the groundwater, as they tend to cling to the chalk omnipresent in the Marne region. This historical build-up has created a certain urgency to restrict the current use of pesticides and more specifically herbicides to prevent further pollution and possible mass degradation of the region’s water sources.

The desire to reduce the amount of pesticides used in France is not new. In 2008, the French government put in place a first EcoPhyto plan, piloted by 1900 agricultural business who aimed to reduce and measure their pesticide usage over the following years. In the light of the relative success, the French government launched a second plan in 2015; Ecophyto II, aimed to reduce the use of pesticides by 50 percent by 2025, and has been adopted by 30,000 agricultural and viticultural players across the country.

The Comité Interprofesionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) has committed to the objectives of the EcoPhyto II plan, and after having almost completely eradicated the use of insecticides in the region, has now moved its focus to the reduction of herbicides, which are still widely used in Champagne. Last year, Arnaud Descotes, technical director of the CIVC, told Wine-Searcher that two-thirds of the region’s vineyards were still blanket-sprayed with herbicides, and almost 90 percent of the vineyards used herbicides to weed under the rows.

However, it looks like change is imminent, as later this week the Technical Committee of the CIVC will vote to accept a ban on the blanket spraying of pre-emergent herbicides (including glyphosates) from 2018 on. This move was lauded by Beddelem as an important step in the right direction.

Besides working with the CIVC, the Eau Seine et Normandie agency also works closely together with several grower cooperatives and Champagne houses to further promote the reduction and even the elimination of herbicide usage.

Veuve Clicquot is one of the Champagne houses that has changed to a zero-herbicide regime. According to cellarmaster Dominique Demarville, the choice was an obvious one, especially considering the continuing deterioration of the ground water and erosion of the hillside soils.

“We are very fortunate to have such a wonderful terroir in Champagne; it is part of our heritage and we owe it to the future generations to preserve it. This means we have to reign in our pesticide usage,” he said.

However, Romain Leguillou, Clicquot’s vineyard manager, added that this change of policy has not always been easy to implement and that it had significant social and economic drawbacks. “We have come to realize that the move to eliminate the use of herbicides has significantly changed the working conditions of our 120 vineyard workers, often complicating their labor,” he said.

“Furthermore, we have also noticed that our yields have been reduced significantly, which means we have to review and tweak our current practices if we want to continue to meet our market demand.”

Clicquot is also trying to get as many grower suppliers on board as possible, by assisting interested growers with free technical advice and know how, as well as an extra premium on the grape price. “We want to set an example and show that it is possible to work without herbicides,” concludes Demarville.