Aromas of Black Plum and Licorice, With Lingering Notes of Roundup 

The detection of herbicides in wines — even some organic wines — highlights the growing health impacts of chemical-farming practices.

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Globally, many nations have banned specific synthetic pesticides shown by research to harm humans.

But in Alameda County, public groundskeepers still rely on Roundup to fight weeds. 

"It's a cost-benefit assessment — what is the cost of using these pesticides, and what are the benefits?" said Ed Duarte, the integrated pest management expert for the Alameda County Department of Agriculture. He said the county's prevailing policy on pesticides is to use them only when necessary. 

Perro thinks glyphosate is never necessary and should be banned. 

"But not only that, we need to ban chemical farming," she said. "We have to transition to organic solutions."


Beyond Organic

About forty years ago, shortly after Kristie and Rick Knoll moved from Orange County to Brentwood and planted a large garden and dozens of fig trees, the young couple were sleeping in on a lazy weekend morning.

"Suddenly there was this barrage of noise, like we were being attacked by another country," Kristie recently recalled. 

The din, she said, was a helicopter, which hovered low as it moved over a neighbor's fields, deploying pesticides — which Knoll blithely refers to as "poison."

She and her husband quickly learned that chemical warfare on animal and plant pests was standard in the business of farming, to which they were then brand new. 

"Everybody was spraying everything with poison, and it was freaking us out," Knoll said. In response to the aerial dousings, she and her husband planted a line of trees along their property line — a sort of pesticide break. Still, she said, their neighbors occasionally "drift" on them. 

"I don't know what it is, but we can smell it," she said. 

Today, Knoll Farms is one of the few farms in Alameda County that strives to be completely chemical-free. The 10-acre farm was once but is no longer certified organic, as paying for the organic stamp eventually seemed a waste of time and money, said Knoll, who likes to say her farm is "beyond organic." She said they still don't use any synthetic pesticides on their orchards and vegetables.

"Why would you spray poison on something you're going to eat?" she said.

But Knoll's attitude is the exception and not the rule. After all, chemical use is the agricultural standard in much of the world. In Alameda County, for example, less than 200 acres of the county's 2,600 acres of fruit trees and grapevines is certified organic. 

Organic remains the preferred purity indicator among activists for identifying ostensibly safe-to-eat food. While even organic foods sometimes carry measurable pesticide residues, the levels are relatively low. On the other hand, marketing terms like "sustainable" and "green" too-often denote little that is truly meaningful.

Consider California's wine industry, which is currently promoting environmentally friendly farming practices and neighborly manners in communities increasingly lashing out against vineyard conversions. Earlier this year, the Sonoma County Winegrowers organization applauded itself for certifying 99 percent of the county's vineyards as sustainable. The organization aligns its standards with those set by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance's statewide certification program.

But much to the chagrin of organic farmers and chemical-free advocates, these and other sustainability programs don't restrict the use of many pesticides, including glyphosate. The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance requires that growers abstain from using certain chemicals compiled on a "red list" and at least attempt to do so with other products on a "yellow list." Glyphosate is not on either list.

"These lists were developed very intentionally, and the red list chemicals are barely used by anyone, anyway, and on the yellow list, very few of those chemicals are used," said Megan Kaun, a board member of Sonoma County Conservation Action and the director of a campaign to ban or heavily restrict the use of dangerous pesticides, including fungicides and herbicides. Kaun, like many activists, blames the county's wine industry as a major source of toxic chemical use.

While vineyard managers ostensibly mitigate impacts to the environment by applying chemicals only when little or no wind is blowing — often at night — this tactic only works in theory. Even on the stillest of mornings, a bystander can watch as a tractor sprays vines with chemicals that plume over the vineyard in a towering cloud, disappearing into the air. 

"They're drifty," Kaun said. "All spray pesticides can drift a mile or more."

Senior scientist Margaret Reeves of the Pesticide Action Network in Berkeley said it's dangerous to assume pesticides don't drift. "Fumigant pesticides drift by design," she pointed out.

Chemical drift threatens other farmers' crops, animals, wildlife, and water sources. Of course, it also affects humans, especially farmworkers.

Kaun said the state's wine industry's sustainable campaign "is a huge farce — the farmers don't actually have to do anything to be sustainable." 

Similar sustainability programs, with names such as "Lodi Rules" and "Fish Friendly Farming," place few restrictions on the use of potent chemical toxins — just guidelines suggesting limited use. 

"Sustainable Sonoma is a little disingenuous because it allows the use of Roundup," said farmer Lou Preston, who grows certified organic grapes and a variety of food crops near Healdsburg.

Karissa Kruse, the president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, declined a request for an interview. 


The EPA's Dubious Data

The Wine Institute's glyphosate page makes no mention of the World Health Organization's opinion on the wine industry's favorite herbicide. In 2015, the WHO's International Agency on Research of Cancer, or IARC, classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. In 2017, California's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, better known as Proposition 65, added glyphosate to the list of known chemicals known to cause cancer.

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