Organic viticulture – what next?
2021 was a difficult year for the wine industry in Baden-Württemberg. High levels of infection by the peronospora fungus resulted in a decline in yield and quality in a number of regions.
The production risk in organic viticulture is especially high in years like 2021 in particular with high rates of peronospora infestation, because the differences in impact between the copper products used in organic viticulture and the organic compounds used in integrated viticulture are clear to see. Therefore, some organic wine producers in particular saw extreme declines in yield in 2021 or even total failures. This can threaten the very existence of the companies affected due to their lack of economic sustainability.
Baden-Württemberg’s Minister of Agriculture Peter Hauk therefore invited representatives from the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Commission for a exchange of views. “2021 pushed our organic wine producers to their psychological, organisational and economic limits. A lot of organic companies have invested a lot in viticulture and not got much to show for it”, said Hauk as the host of the discussion explaining the current situation. Hauk asked the representatives of the EU Commission how the future expansion targets for organic farming can be reconciled with the latest requirements in organic viticulture. “There are a limited number of options available for protecting vines in organic viticulture. Copper still plays a major role. This is why we in Germany are committed to reducing the amount of copper used. At the moment, no other alternative treatment agents are available at short notice to help regulate vine peronospora”. This raises the question of whether potassium phosphate can still be used in organic viticulture.
In Brussels, Baden-Württemberg has made great efforts in recent years lobbying to ensure that potassium phosphate can still be used in organic viticulture, or at least for a limited period of time. The EU Commission however holds the view that potassium phosphate is not compatible with the regulations governing organic farming.
The federal and state associations for viticulture and organic wine production took part in the talks, held online at the beginning of December, and spoke about the precarious situation faced by many organic wine producers in 2021. They claimed that organic viticulture is not operationally sustainable under these conditions, and also not attractive. They went on to say that a repeat of what was seen in 2021 would result in other companies being reluctant to switch to organic production or even switching back.
Hauk confirmed that he would be happy to organise another conversation to continue working on solutions for organic viticulture. He also said that Baden-Württemberg will also contribute its subject knowledge to preparing specialist information for a possible reassessment of potassium phosphate.
Making organic viticulture possible
"Up until early 2021 the future for organic viticulture in Germany looked very promising. A lot of winegrowers had switched to organic production or adopted individual elements of organic cultivation, and many saw organic cultivation as the future. The German Winegrowers’ Association is also going in this direction with its current push towards sustainable management, which it hopes will make organic viticulture viable – both in terms of winegrowing as well as economically! However, under the current framework this is not possible in the event of either weather conditions such as those seen this year or crop failures which pose an existential threat to a company. Solutions for organic viticulture are needed – not just in the long term but also in the short term. We are committed to growing more fungus-resistant grape varieties. They form part of our sustainability strategy. German grape breeders are doing pioneering work for the whole of Europe in this respect. However, it takes a lot of time and experience before a new type of grape has proven its value. We need a temporary solution now to be able to move towards organic viticulture. This cannot be guaranteed just by using copper. Germany has decided to embark on a strategy to minimise the use of copper, which is made possible by using potassium phosphates. This option must be explored at EU level in order to cut down on a large proportion of the copper used. We are also interested in other solutions. Likewise, research projects such as Vitifit and the funding of technical solutions are building blocks which offer hope that a better solution will be found. There is no new development preventing a temporary return to using potassium phosphate, rather it is more the case that there is no alternative available for the transition.
Without this temporary solution things will be very difficult for organic viticulture in Germany."
Thomas Walz, Vice-President of the German Winegrowers’ Association
2021: the year of mildew
"Despite the expensive and time-consuming efforts made to protect plants many organic winegrowers suffered significant yield losses, which in turn resulted in financial losses. It also placed a significant psychological strain on organic winemakers, who despite all their efforts had to watch their plants become diseased and see their income fall from one day to the next. What makes things more difficult is the fact that we aren’t just dealing with one catastrophic year, but more that 2021 was the culmination of developments over the last three decades.
The number of treatments in organic viticulture has increased dramatically from four to six sprays in the 1980s to eight to 12 applications from the mid-1990s onwards and 12 to 15 treatments a year in the last ten years.
Both climate change as well as the apparent increase in the virulence of the peronospora fungus are hugely increasing the number of infections. The fear that organic winegrowers have before every new season and the uncertainty of how the weather will behave has risen enormously in the last few years.
Countless tests with alternative opportunities, procedures and compounds have been made over the last four decades, but so far without success. The exception to this is the positive results seen with the use of phosphonates, which do more than just keep vines healthy and guarantee yields."
Paulin Köpfer, ECOVIN BADEN
Taking research to the next level
"2021 was a difficult year for organic viticulture – both financially as well as ecologically. To make organic viticulture more viable from both an environmentally-friendly and a financial perspective even in such extreme years, politics, business and research need to work together on targets and measures for the short, medium and long term.
This is why it is important for organic viticulture to be able to provide realistic and practical solutions to the major challenges which are happening increasingly often due to climate change and extreme weather events, as well as for other reasons. In more general terms, the long-term objective still involves significantly expanding the research carried out into organic viticulture. Making nature-based pesticides more widely available, and in connection with this the tailored approval or funding of possible substances are important measures which have a positive impact on organic viticulture.
A broader transition towards fungus-resistant grape varieties is also required. Research, teaching and consultancy should also work together to optimise the cultivation and development of these grape varieties and to make them more marketable.
Of course, the issue of copper also can’t be ignored. Copper compounds have long been widely used in organic viticulture, and cannot be replaced at present. For many years, associations in Germany have pursued a responsible approach with their strategy to minimise the use of copper. Using copper more efficiently and more sparingly ensures the long-term existence of organic viticulture in Central Europe while having a minimum impact on the environment, people and the soil."
Jan Plagge, President of Bioland
We would also like to discuss these topics with you at the 64th International DWV Congress!