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Suspected death threat sent to Burgundy winemaker

French police are investigating a possible death threat sent to the home of a Burgundy wine union president, as tension in France grows over the use of pesticides in vineyards.

A letter sent to the head of the Mâcon producers’ union, Jérôme Chevallier, warned of deaths unless growers stop using pesticides in their vineyards.

Local police are treating the anonymous letter, sent to Chevallier’s home address, as a possible death threat.

However, the language used may also imply that the author believes pesticide use is contributing to sickness among winemakers and vineyard workers.

It is the latest episode of an increasingly fraught debate over pesticide use in French vineyards.

The letter sent to Chevallier, and seen by Decanter.com, demands ‘the end of pesticide usage in the north of the Mâconnais’.

It says that ‘without reaction, sooner or later there will be deaths among the grape growing community’.

It also states that ‘real winegrowers do not use pesticides in such industrial quantities’.

Pesticide use is increasingly in the public spotlight in France.

Protesters last week staged a lie-in in Bordeaux near to where French president Francois Hollande opened the 80m-euro Cité du Vin wine theme park.

A recent two-hour, television documentary on France 2 claimed that 65,000 tonnes of dangerous pesticides are sprayed on French vineyards, which, the programme claimed, are a real health hazard to the local population.

Ever since, pesticides awareness groups have sprung up in most viticulture regions and anti-pesticide protests have been rife.

A pressure group in the Mâconnais area, named CMPS, has since February this year called on grape growers to cut pesticide use.

In response, growers have worked with the Burgundy wine bureau (BIVB) and national weather service France Météo to define optimal treatment windows. Dry days without wind are the most effective for spraying pesticides.

But, difficult weather this year caused several of these days to fall in the weekend and on the May bank holidays.

Caroline Guyotat, of Chevallier’s Mâcon producers’ union,  said, ‘it is not that we have treated more than in previous years, but the short treatment windows which often fell in the weekend may have misled the population in believing the opposite.’

Cécile Mathiaud, of the BIVB, said the bureau considered banning all herbicides earlier this year. But, the plan was put on hold after after the region was hit by severe frost and hail damage.

‘Eliminating herbicides will increase our carbon footprint if we do not at the same time promote more energy efficient tractors,’ said Mathiaud. ‘The last years have been difficult for our region, and few growers currently have the financial means to invest in new agricultural material.’

She said that the BIVB was researching ecological grape growing to further reduce the risk of spraying to village inhabitants.

Jérôme Chevallier re-iterated growers’ commitment to minimal spraying at a meeting of local politicians held on 31 May, and including the préfet of the Saône-et-Loire area, Gilbert Payet.

In the same meeting, Marine Pasquier, spokesperson for pressure group CMPS, condemned the tone of the letter sent to Chevallier and called for more co-operation.

France’s government launched its ‘EcoPhyto’ plan in 2008 in order to reduce pesticide use across agriculture by 50% by 2018 ‘if possible’.

Some experts have said it may take longer to achieve that target. President Hollande re-affirmed his commitment to cutting pesticide use during his trip to Bordeaux last week to open the Cité du Vin wine theme park.

Additional reporting and editing by Chris Mercer.

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