Biodiversity and Vines Seminar

Friday, July 06, 2007 - Sasha Lagrange

Concluded in Stellenbosch last week, the seminar was held to promote collaborative exchange and land management ideas between California, New Zealand and South Africa and was presented as part of the Society for Conservation’s Biology Conference taking place in Port Elizabeth this week.

The seminar put forward an array of compelling arguments in favour of biodiversity which contradict the still prevailing perception among agricultural land owners – here and elsewhere - that conservation is a no-return-on-investment prospect.

The root of the issue as it relates to winegrowing in the Western Cape, is that vines and fynbos lay claim to the same natural resources. South African wine growers’ prevailing mindset that conservation offers only liability are in part fueled by a collective mood negatively influenced by an ever-more competitive global wine market, in a context where resources also need to be reorganized along the redistributive imperatives of black economic empowerment.

A map of endangered species in the province gives one a perturbing look at the problem, which is set to intensify as the symptoms of global warming strengthen in the coming decades, the seminar’s delegates were told.

The habitats of endangered, if not extinguished, renosterveld species strikingly coincide with that of South Africa’s national vineyard. Ninety percent of South African wines are, in fact, produced in the Cape Floral Kingdom. This implies that the conservation of indigenous vegetation depends to a large extent on the response of private land owners, namely wine growers; whom, as explained before, are perhaps not the most receptive of audiences to the conservation/biodiversity message here and now.

The good news, as Inge Kotze from the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI) pointed out, is that South Africa has traditionally led the way in terms of international best practice with regards to conservation farming. Following in South Africa's footprints, other New World wine producing countries such as California and New Zealand have initiated very similar schemes which are also bearing fruit, quite literally.

Said Kotze:"The differentiation point, however, is that South Africa still has a lot of natural habitat it can set aside for biodiversity conservation purposes, in contrast to those other countries which are developed wall-to-wall. This means that we can still do a lot."

Speaking about the transformation in wine growing practices in California, Josh Viers from the University of California, Davis, put forward the recent paradigm shift which has occurred in the United States in regard to "green" winegrowing.

He explained that the Californian wine industry seems to have moved from what was colloquially labeled "organic" agriculture - which referred to non-interventionist practices in the vineyard by a few marginalized producers - to "sustainable" agriculture, which allowed producers to adopt more mainstream methods in a holistic context. Seen from an economic viability perspective, Viers explained, "sustainable" agriculture implies a step down from the purist ("organic") approach. Farmers farm less “green”, but this is counterbalanced by broader ("sustainable") interventions in the vineyards, such as erosion control plans, the use of drip irrigation, or the use of trained goats for weed control.

However, those who deem that conservation equates to "green expropriation" argue that enforcing conservation often means the loss of existing infrastructure.

"A farmer can lose the use of his dam when conservation guidelines are implemented," as Rudolph Roscher from LandCare, an initiative run by the Department of Agriculture pointed out. "Managing enforced conservation areas come at a cost [such as alien plant clearing, fencing, etc.]." Roscher concluded rhetorically: "Who will bear those costs given that conservation entities have such limited capacity?"

This challenge is compounded by the fact that conservation efforts need to run concurrently with communities’ and farm workers’ needs, such as water storage capacity and firebreaks.

Furthermore, the value of land allocated to conservation tends to depreciate rapidly. Said Roscher: "The 2004 Municipality Property Evaluation values one hectare of irrigated land at R40,000, whereas one hectare of veld is valued at R500.”

What are the incentives then for South African wine farms to allocate land to conservation? What are the "compelling arguments" mentioned before? The speakers to the workshop all agreed that managing resources in a sustainable fashion is beneficial to a farm, not only as a living space but also as an enterprise.

The benefits associated with conservation farming can be measured as avoided costs, such as energy and water savings. Strong agricultural outputs also contribute to offset the costs associated with conservation, such as "healthy soils, good water infiltration, enhanced productivity and self-sustained pest control (...)",as Ingrid Nänni, from the National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) demonstrated.

Kent Reeves, researcher and advisor for the Central Valley Farmland Trust which represents five counties in California, relayed how farms in the lower Mokelumne River Watershed in California had benefited from conservation practices that had enabled the full rehabilitation of river banks on the edge of collapsing due to intensive farming practices.

The seminar’s presenters also seemed to have arrived at a shared consensus that a wine label communicating biodiversity allows for differentiation and the possible attracting of new markets, as yet untapped by wine on a popular scale.

In South Africa, IPW (Integrated Production of Wines) and BWI are currently planning a joint marketing strategy which will aim to promote biodiversity through strong and aligned branding. The marketing campaign, which is to be launched in August this year, will promote wineries and wine farms which comply with best environmental practices. In order to have their wines labeled with the biodiversity logo, Kotze explains that "prospective wineries will have to either –if they do not have natural habitat which can be conserved - get exemplary scoring from IPW, or either be both an IPW and BWI member.”

The idea to drive consumer demand and, from there, influence production methods is becoming increasingly popular on a global scale. "The strategy adopted by BWI to entice wine growers to comply with the biodiversity guidelines relies on the leveraging of preferential trade agreements with governments and the retail sector," Kotze explained.

The American team put forward a number of undisputed facts illustrating the economic spin-offs of conservation farming which bode well for the future, although their scope is still limited. Michael-Davids Vineyards in California this year decided to offer a 10% bonus on the purchasing price of "sustainably grown" certified grapes. Another persuasive American case in point is that of the insurance company Pan American Underwriters, who offer a 10% discount on policy premiums for wineries adhering to sustainable practices.

Kent Reeves presented an interesting financial derivative from practising agricultural conservation. The Central Valley Farmland Trust receives some government funding with which it offers to purchase the development rights of portions of land on farms identified for conservation. On these, the winegrower can still farm using environmentally friendly practices, but he or she is not allowed to erect any buildings. In this instance, conservation is a direct source of income.

In South Africa, wine farms that commit to partnering with Cape Nature in a stringent conservation program referred to as "contract nature reserves" can be exempted from paying property rates as they gain the status of national park.

Ecotourism is another potential economic spin-off associated with biodiversity conservation, seized locally by the Elgin region with its Green Mountain Eco Route, which is the world’s first biodiversity wine route.

Finally, the benefits of conservation farming are substantial for humans, delegates were told. Farms in the US report a higher degree of job satisfaction in their farm workers, who feel they are better treated in the workplace as conservation farming practices do not expose their health as conventional methods do.

Although the long term benefits of implementing conservation guidelines for a wine farm are clearly demonstrable, the buy-in from winegrowers is certainly partly conditioned by the consumer’s receptivity to and comprehension of biodiversity as a concept, the inaugural Biodiversity and Vines Seminar concluded.

Commenting on consumer receptivity from a Wines of South Africa perspective, Andre Morgenthal, Communications Manager of the body, indicated that certain markets have a better response to the biodiversity message than others. "Consumers in countries such as Germany, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Sweden have an incremental understanding of the impact their buying power can have. This implies that people are realizing that the Variety is in our Nature campaign is not only about the environment but also about social responsibility toward people and a commitment to sustainable and ethical farming practice."

Integrated Production of Wines
Biodiversity and Wine Initiative