More “Inconvenient Truths” —About Our Wine and Food

More “Inconvenient Truths” —About Our Wine and Food

by Donald Harms

As you may well expect these days, this is yet another inconvenient truth:

My wife and I are grape and lavender growers in the Napa Valley. Some may think wine and lavender are not food but we think of them as ‘food for the senses.’ We grow these plants biodynamically and organically. The ‘biodynamic’ part may seem too technical for some readers, but it is not; it is quite the opposite. It is the practice of growing plants so as not to displease the nature spirits. I know, this not in the forefront of agribusiness, even here in California. Nevertheless, displeasing the nature spirits is something none of us would knowingly or willfully want to do.

As a farmer, it became necessary for me to appear at the Agriculture Commission office to be certified to handle ‘DANGEROUS’ CHEMICALS. Now for 15 years of the last 20 years of farming, we have not knowingly applied ‘dangerous chemicals’. But we do apply some limited amount of sulfur to our vines to control mildew, acceptable according to our biodynamic/organic certifier. Under the laws of California, to purchase and apply sulfur, I needed to have my knowledge of pesticide use tested. But because my knowledge of chemical usage has lapsed due to non-use in recent years, I failed the test!

And that is when the ‘truths’ inconveniently began to emerge. I was told to study a 120 page manual Pesticide Safety (University of California Publication 3383) and come back in a week to be tested again. I do not fault the writers of the manuel for what follows here. In fact, the manuel is superbly well written and contains much of ‘truth’ that is not commonly known about pesticide use on the food that we eat . The following are quotes taken word for word from the manual:

The word Danger, ( as shown on pesticide labels) accompanied by the word Poison and a skull and cross bones…….tells you that the pesticide has high acute toxicity or poses a dangerous health or environmental hazard.


Inversion conditions (climatic inversion) are dangerous during a pesticide application because fine spray droplets and pesticide vapor can become trapped and concentrated ….. . Rather than dispersing the pesticide often moves as a concentrated cloud away from the treatment site.


Honey Bees. Certain types of insecticide and fungicide applications may kill honey bees. Honey bees are most susceptible if you apply harmful pesticides while they are foraging for nectar and pollen.


Honey bees only forage during certain temperature ranges; therefore, make applications when temperatures are not suitable for bee activity ( early morning or late afternoons ) if you are using pesticides that might injure bees.


Whenever possible, avoid injury to non target organisms by timing applications to periods when they are not present in the treatment area. This technique works well for honey bees because they forage only during warm, daylight hours….. .


Environmental contamination by pesticides may lead to loss of water quality or injury to non target vegetation, honey bees, birds, or other wildlife.


Rainwater washes pesticides into the soil, producing possible groundwater and surface water contamination.


If you are personally exposed to some types of pesticides you could suffer short-term or long-term health problems. If you are careless and allow pesticides to drift or otherwise get into the environment, nearby workers, residents, or passersby may be injured.


Anyone who eats treated produce from your fields before the harvest interval expires will risk exposure. People will also risk exposure if they touch recently treated plant foliage.


Poisoning symptoms (from exposure to pesticides) vary among classes of pesticides…. . Common symptoms include a skin rash, headache, or irritation of your eyes, nose and throat. ….” “Poisoning may also result in apprehension, restlessness, anxiety, unusual behavior, shaking, convulsions, or unconsciousness.


Sometimes, environmental damage can occur even when the pesticides you have applied remain in the target area. For example, if non target species are in a field under treatment, or enter soon after an application, they may be poisoned.


Non target organisms include all plants and animals other than the pest being controlled by a pesticide application. As much as 55% of an applied pesticide may leave the treatment area [sic] due to spray drift, volatilization, leaching, runoff and soil erosion.” …”Some herbicides in concentrations as low as 1/1000 of a pound (0.454 gram) per acre may reduce yields. Under certain weather conditions, and if large acreage is being treated, pesticide concentrations in this range can drift out the treatment area and move for several miles before settling to the ground.” “Even if a pesticide exposure does not directly cause illness or death, it may weaken a non target animal and indirectly cause death by leaving the animal unable to get food and water or protect itself from predators. Some pesticides affect the ability of wildlife to reproduce.


The following are common organophosphate and N-methyl carbamate pesticides. (Listed on page 103 of the Safety Manual) Pesticide handlers who handle these or other organophosphate or N-methyl carbamate insecticides with the signal word Danger or Warning for more than six days in any 30-day period must be under medical supervision.


I have listed four references to bees in the preceding safety worries. We keep bees. I’m almost sure, one way or another, we could communicate to them that they need to observe the pesticide manufacturer’s recommended “reentry interval” after a pesticide application. The problem is that they may not agree with the priorities we want to impose. They might well respond, “We bees don’t have 48 or 72 hours to waste on something so stupid as this.” Besides, we farmers may well have already contaminated what they need to make honey. What bees have done in other confrontations we have had with them is simply to bop us on the forehead, informing us to “get outa our way, we have work to do.”

There are at least two weighty questions here. What about these corporate manufacturer’s specified re-entry times into a field? And what about the accuracy of the time interval between the last application of pesticides and harvest? What level of certainty do we have of what is ultimately safe? Even the best science and technology doesn’t always get it right. Time and experience have shown that time and again with food, health and the environment. We both have family members made sick and even hospitalized by the (correct) use of farm chemicals. What is there about a 10 day harvest interval after the application of chemicals that is determined to be safe when 7, 8, or 9 days are not?

After all the concerns about the farm workers, the bees, the birds, the beneficial insects, and the whole of the community here in Napa Valley and in California, after the harvest, this is also about the wine we drink and the food we eat.

Donald Harms, Wine Grape and Lavender Grower
Napa Valley, California