A selfless idealist, fighting for agricultural freedom and new solutions to vineyard challenges? Or a biodynamic fundamentalist making life difficult for his neighbours, friends and colleagues? Mention Emmanuel Giboulot in wine circles, and you tend to hear the sound of knees jerking en masse -- in opposite directions.

Image: Emmanuel Giboulot

A few facts first. Flavescence dorée in vines is roughly analogous to septicemia in humans. It is, in other words, a disease of the phloem, caused by specialized bacteria called phytoplasma. Vine activity slows; leaves yellow and curl; shoots droop; lignification fails to occur; berries shrivel; bunches fall off. Those symptoms, note, might only occur in the fourth or fifth year after infection; like HIV in humans, the disease can lie dormant for some years. Sooner (young vines) or later (older vines), the plant dies. There’s no cure.

It’s thought that the disease arrived from the USA during World War Two (phytoplasma are a recurrent problem in tropical crops like sugarcane, where they cause grassy shoot disease). The first French occurrence was in Armagnac in 1949; Corsica took a bad hit in 1974; and the disease became general across southern France from 1980 onwards. It’s a newer challenge in more northerly French vineyards, notably Savoie, and in other European countries.

It can arrive in your vineyard in one of two ways: either via infected nursery stock, or transmitted via a leafhopper called Scaphoideus titanus (la cicadelle de la vigne in French). Due to its gravity, it’s the only vineyard disease subject in France to a lutte obligatoire (obligatory treatment). This is decided on a departmental basis, by prefectorial decree. Since the disease is gaining ground with alarming rapidity in Burgundy, such a decree was put into force in almost all of the communes of the Côte d’Or on June 7th last year. That means that

– any affected vine must be uprooted and burnt;
– any parcel with more than 20 per cent of affected vines must be entirely uprooted and all plants burnt;
– all new plant material must either come from unaffected areas, or the plants must have been hot-water treated;
– insecticide must be used against the vine leafhopper.

Emmanuel Giboulot has 10 ha of Côtes de Beaune and Hautes Côtes de Beaune which he cultivates biodynamically. He has refused to use insecticide in his vineyards; been prosecuted; and been fined a derisory sum (€500), which he is now refusing to pay. He now risks prison and a fine of €30,000. 127,000 people on Facebook think he is right to defy the prefect’s decree, and over 500,000 have signed an online petition backing him.

Is he refusing to use insecticide because of biodynamic principles? No. There is one insecticide called Pyrévert which those practicing organic cultivation can use, and which organic and biodynamic growers in Burgundy are now using. It contains pyrethrins, natural organic compounds derived from certain dried chrysanthemum blossoms (Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium and C.coccineum). No one relishes using it: it kills bees, too. Other organic treatments are being sought, with some urgency. The leafhopper doesn’t like the colour orange, nor bright light, so reflective mulches might help; it also has natural predators, including a number of spider species and the praying mantis.

Even the bees, though, aren’t why M.Giboulot declined the prefect’s command; he says he would have ‘no problem’ about using Pyrévert if he had an affected vineyard nearby. But he doesn’t. Or thinks he doesn’t – though even he can’t be sure, since the disease can lurk asymptomatically for a while.

His objection, in fact, is to the principle of obligatory treatment. What are the limits of individual freedom in this respect?

Since humans are social animals, individual freedom must always be calibrated against the wider social good: the ultimate test for all legislation. Wine-growing Burgundy is a small, intensely planted area of extraordinary significance; it contains some of the world’s most valuable agricultural land. The appellations which M.Giboulot uses to frame and market his wine are not his alone, but are a collective property right belonging to thousands of fellow growers. If M.Giboulot’s hunch that his vines do not have asymptomatic flavescence dorée is wrong, the consequences could be catastrophic. Under these circumstances, and given that the use of Pyrévert would not endanger his status as an organic or biodynamic wine grower, his inaction seems unreasonable. Those green knees which have jerked in his support – including those of Europe Ecologie Les Verts, France’s Green Party – are misguided.

A much better approach is that taken by the grower action group called Collectif des Vignerons, formed under the leadership of Alec Seysses of Domaine Dujac in December 2013. The Collectif is campaigning for obligatory parcel analysis, strict traceability for plant material and a more flexible approach to the lutte obligatoire – in co-operation with the authorities. Progress is good, I understand.

Britons know how costly an agricultural misjudgment can be when the disease stakes are high. Back in 2001, a British farmer called Bobby Waugh exercised his liberty to feed his pigs whatever he wanted, and he fed them infected garbage (believed to have contained remains of illegally imported meat) which had not been properly heat-sterilised on his Northumberland farm. Ten million sheep and cattle were subsequently killed in order to eradicate the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease which followed; the bill to the nation was around £8 billion. Mr Waugh’s liberty of action carried a remarkable social cost. Some risks aren’t worth running.

Written by Andrew Jefford