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Jefford on Monday: France’s No-Fly Zone

Two words those who move to France quickly learn are interdire and interdiction: ‘to forbid’ and ‘ban’. I walked my 3- and 5-year-old sons across the playground of their maternity school when we first arrived here, and the first thing we saw was the list of ‘forbidden activities’ pinned to the wall. It seemed mildly depressing. Though I was -- after thinking it through -- in favour: we’d visited enough casualty departments already. Many French bans, by contrast, seem to me misguided. I’m tempted to include the ban on aerial vineyard treatments announced last month in France’s Journal Officiel.

One of Bernard Magrez’s vineyard drones on show at Château Pape Clément

The wisest bans come into force after long experience of a practice proves it to be noxious – such as smoking in public spaces, or drinking alcohol before driving. (Or fighting in playgrounds.) They are the fruit of bitter experience. They eventually enjoy widespread support.

Less sage are those bans based on fear or pre-emption. They often come prematurely, before the advantages and disadvantages of an innovative practice can be adequately weighed. The gas-and-oil extraction technique called fracking, for example, is revolutionising the world energy market, and has seen the USA overtake Russia in natural-gas production and will soon see the USA overtake Saudi Arabia in oil production. Yet fracking is banned in France, despite the fact that the country is trying to wean itself off its dependence on nuclear energy. Is this wise policy?  

The ban on spraying vineyards from the air is part of a general ban on any aerial treatments of crops in France which has been in place since 2009, though vine growers (along with those growing maize, rice and bananas) have thus far been subject to an exemption. This exemption is due to expire at the end of 2015. The extent of French agricultural land treated from the air has consequently declined by 77% over the past five years. No more than 1% of French vineyards have been historically treated in that way, though that figure masks stark regional variations: in Champagne it has been as high as 10%.

Spraying vineyards — from ground or air — is an unwelcome fact of life for all vine growers, whether they are ‘conventional’, organic or biodynamic. Organic and biodynamic growers, indeed, often need to spray more frequently than conventional growers, though they would claim that the products they are using are less noxious than those used by conventional growers. From the point of view of the neighbours (and I have been one for the last five years) no vineyard treatment product is more malodorous and disagreeable than sulphur. And that’s the one product that everyone uses, in one form or another.

Issues of spray drift have already been in the news this year, when school pupils in a village called Villeneuve, near to Bourg and just across the estuary from Margaux, were taken ill at around lunchtime on May 5th. They had an assortment of symptoms, including nausea, headaches, coughs and throat pains. The school is surrounded by vines, and the vines had been treated with fungicide (billowed about by friendly tractors) during the morning, including while the children played in the schoolyard. That, though, broke the rules regarding spraying, as well as calling into question the common sense of the vineyard owners (one of whom was the village mayor). The symptoms were gone by the next day. Read the next paragraph but one before you consider that entirely reassuring.

Aerial spraying of vines is most useful under two different sets of circumstances: either when the vineyard is very large, or when it is very steep. Thanks to its fractured landholding patterns, France doesn’t have many large vineyards of the sort common in the southern hemisphere. It does, though, have many steep vineyards. Aerial spraying can also be the most rapid form of intervention, and is unaffected by the state of the soil (whereas heavy rain in clay-soiled areas can render vineyards temporarily inaccessible to tractors).  

Earlier this summer, I looked from Tain up to the vineyards on the hill of Hermitage – and rubbed my eyes. Some of them were being sprayed by what appeared to be an invasion force of cybermen, covered from head to foot in orange and white outfits. If this level of protective clothing is really necessary to spray a steep vineyard against mildew, wouldn’t it be a good idea to keep human beings and spray treatments as far apart from one another as possible?  

Bring on, in other words, the drones. The use of drones so far in viticulture, as indeed in most other branches of agriculture, has been confined to data gathering. They make a perfect tool for precision viticulture techniques – which in themselves should greatly reduce the necessity for spray treatments, since sprays can be concentrated in the zones of vineyards most at risk, and not needlessly blanketed over healthy as well as vulnerable vines.  

Drone technology is still relatively expensive and there are legislative challenges to some of its applications, but the potential employment of small, inexpensive foam drones is already looking as if could revolutionise agriculture (just as this technology will revolutionise warfare: there are now more drone pilots being trained than fighter pilots). The case for using slightly bulkier drones to make spray treatments — for steep vineyards, for partially disease-affected vineyards, or for small strips or blocks of vineyards in areas like Burgundy or Champagne where landholding patterns are mosaic-like – seems irresistible. It will be safe, precise and economical. How, though, will it be possible in a country which has decided to ban all aerial treatment of its crops?

Written by Andrew Jefford

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