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An Environmental Issue: Is Wine Bad For The Planet?

Nobody wants to feel guilty about drinking wine but has it become an ethical and environmental issue? Just as we consider the ethical and environment issues when buying food or clothing, so the same factors are now coming into play for wine lovers. MAGGIE ROSEN opens our 15-page environmental focus by presenting the issues involved.

There is now little doubt that modern life is hurting the planet but is winemaking an environmental issue? The unwitting byproducts of our society – carbon emissions, hazardous chemicals and growing piles of non-recyclable rubbish – are all under scrutiny as environmentalists seek to draw attention to the energy drain behind global warming. But with easy targets like heavy manufacturing, cheap air travel and big agribusiness, it’s tempting to ignore the fact that the welcome glass of wine we sip while watching the evening’s bad news may not be entirely beyond reproach. From the artisans and garagistes who tend micro-plots in Burgundy and Bordeaux, to the corporate giants that cultivate vast vineyards in California and Australia, few producers are entirely clear of one damaging practice or another. Synthetic fungicides, herbicides and fertilisers, non-degradable materials and environmentally harmful fuels have become integral to the cultivation, packaging and transportation of our beloved nectar. And as people are also part of the production process, the social, physical and financial welfare of pickers and other winery hands can sometimes be called into question as well. So how does wine harm the environment? Let us count the ways…


Water usage is an environmental issue

As the spectre of global warming looms ever larger and environmental issues are coming more into focus, farming of all kinds is being scrutinised for the amount of water it uses, and the efficiency with which it does so. In areas where vines have replaced other traditional crops (or nothing at all), the demand for water – in terms of quantity and even timing over the year – may increase, and be subject to greater fluctuation. In regions once covered by a salt sea, notably parts of Australia, depleted water means an increase in soil’s salinity, which could adversely affect the vines – and other crops. Non-organic fungicides, herbicides and fertilisers used to combat mildew and pests and to make vines more productive could impact the water table, having a negative effect on water for drinking and hydrating other crops. Likewise, untreated waste water from winery use – hosing down barrels, tanks and buildings – can harm the ecosystems in and around rivers, lakes and ponds. It’s not just the huge commercial wineries that are to blame for this environmental issue: in most winemaking regions, they are regulated. Smaller producers whose water usage and wastewater fall outside defined thresholds can damage local resources too. But Carmel Kilcline MW, who wrote her Master of Wine thesis on the wine industry’s use of water in Australia – the driest continent – says evidence suggests that when it comes down to consumption, viticulture is less culpable than other thirsty businesses such as cotton, pasture and livestock. ‘While 99% of the water used in winemaking is used for irrigation rather than in the winery, grapes are still a relatively modest user of water,’ she says. ‘In Riverland, 290 litres of water are used per 750ml bottle of wine. Rice, by contrast, requires 2,380 litres per kg, and cotton 5,020 per kg of cloth.’


The Human Stain

While the wine business may not be as exploitative as, say, the cocoa or fruit industries have historically been, as with any industry requiring manual labour and seasonal workers, the ethics of their employment can come under scrutiny. Those with no vested interest in the business, and nobody to directly monitor their remuneration and physical wellbeing, are the most vulnerable, despite stated government occupational health and safety laws – particularly if they have no legal status or right to work. Most wine regions have depended in some way on labour from pickers from less skilled, less affluent backgrounds that are also less able to speak up for themselves – be they from neighbouring countries or indigenous populations. Adequate pay, accommodation, food and rest are the least workers should expect. But New Zealand’s wine industry was recently criticised for unscrupulous treatment of Thai workers, and California’s stance towards Mexican workers has also come under the spotlight. While it is hoped that rogue traders will out, human nature is such that there will always be some who take advantage. At another extreme exists a situation in which these issues are compounded by a unique local context. South Africa’s wine industry is struggling against the after-effects of apartheid – unequal opportunities for non-white communities, as well as alcohol-related health issues among both adults and children.

Glass weight

Most non-recycled waste generated by the wine industry is from packaging is another environmental issue. In general, wine arrives in the UK in green glass bottles, filled at origin. As the market for recycled glass is dominated by demand for clear glass, WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme, a government-funded company that fosters more efficient use of materials) estimates that imported green glass bottles contribute a hefty 600,000 tonnes a year to the waste stream. A serious alternative is plastic. According to packaging company Pira, a life cycle assessment of plastic pouches and glass bottles for Australian and South African wine indicates that even in the long term, wine transported in plastic would have 20–40% less of an overall negative environmental issue than glass. Even taking into account the recycling advantage of glass bottles, Pira says that if 100% of the bottles and none of the pouches were recycled, the pouches would still generate less waste. So while plastic may seem anathema to the environmentally minded (and – thus far, wine drinkers – see Decanter poll, p9), in practice the case for glass versus plastic is far from crystal clear.

The Carbon Footprint

The wine industry is frantically taking stock of its responsibility for carbon emissions. While there is no legislation specifically for wine, a combination of moral compunction and marketing savvy is encouraging them to consider ways to reduce or at least offset carbon dioxide emissions so as to be seen to be green before this becomes a legal imperative. While the fermentation process, as well as engines and other machinery used in the winery and vineyards, generate carbon, it is distribution that accounts for most of the industry’s output and the greatest environmental issue. With wine zig-zagging the earth before it makes landfill, just how much carbon is associated with global ‘wine miles’ is difficult to assess. Statistics vary wildly, depending on what variables are being measured and how – though the major factors are transport and weight of packaging. Chilean winery Viña Ventisquero has calculated, for example, that transporting a 1,540-case container of its wine to the UK releases the equivalent of two tonnes of fossil fuel. According to the Waste & Resources Action Programme, the UK alone – is the world’s largest importer of wine – brings in a billion litres a year – 50% from the New World, 80% in bottles weighing an average of 500g each, mostly by ship and lorry. The wine industry accounts for a quarter of the 1.5% of the 670 million tonnes of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions made by the alcohol industry.

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