The Environmental Impact of Biodynamic Versus Conventional Viticulture Practices

Many of you have probably already noticed, that viticulture (and in some cases agriculture) is undergoing a slow but steady shift from conventional methods to a more organic or sustainable approach.  In an effort to do their part to help decrease the carbon footprint of the wine industry, many vineyards are starting to put down the chemical pesticides and other conventional farming equipment or products in exchange for greater sustainability and in some cases, a piece of the ever expanding organic and sustainable wine market.

Two general methodologies are showing increases in their implementation and usage throughout the global wine industry: biodynamic viticulture and organic viticulture.  Organic viticulture is loosely defined as avoiding the use of mineral fertilizers or synthetically created chemicals for the protection of vines against various pests.  Biodynamic viticulture could be thought of as an offshoot of organic viticulture, in that many of the same practices are employed, with the exception of some extra techniques that are unique to biodynamic farming.  Specifically, biodynamic agriculture

Photo by Flickr user stefano lubiana wines

Photo by Flickr user stefano lubiana wines

“considers a holistic approach concerning the exploitation of the natural resources, taking into consideration the sustainability of different elements, such as the crops themselves, animal life preservation or the maintenance of high quality soil, in order to recover, preserve or improve ecological harmony”.

One consequence of shifting to an organic or biodynamic viticultural method is a reduction in grape yield, though on the other hand, wines made from organic or biodynamic grapes tend to have increased levels of health-benefitting polyphenol compounds and reduced sulfite levels.  In theory, it is thought that the use of biodynamic preparations enhancing crop growth at the root level, and help regulate bacterial activity, though there is some debate as to whether or not biodynamic farming is actually better for the crops than conventional methods, mostly due to the relative novelty of the practice compared with conventional practices.

The goal of the study presented today, which is currently “In Press” in the Journal of Cleaner Production, aimed to use Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) techniques to evaluate differences between biodynamic, organic, and conventional viticulture methods in terms of overall impact to the environment and to the overall carbon footprint of the industry.

Methods

This study used LCA to compare a biodynamic vineyard to a conventional vineyard that employs some biodynamic techniques (uncertified in biodynamics, aka “hybrid biodyaminc-conventional vineyard), and finally to a conventionally managed vineyard all within a single appellation in NW Spain (Ribeiro).  LCA was used to compare land use impact, as well as human labor impacts on the environment. Using 1.1kg of grapes (the amount of grapes needed to produce a bottle of wine) as the functional unit, environmental impacts for each vineyard site were compared for the vintage years 2010 and 2011.  Note: the hybrid biodymanic-conventional vineyard did not employ the use or application of synthetic pesticides.

The boundaries that contained everything entered into the model ended at the winery gate, as anything post-production would not be related to the type of viticulture technique used, and instead heads into a completely different branch of the Life Cycle Assessment which was out of the scope of this paper.

Raw data was collected from each of the three sites via questionnaires, with emissions and other environmental impact data calculated using several databases and established methodologies.

Due to the differences in climatic conditions between vintage years, there was variability between and within sites in terms of how much interference was required for protection of the grapes, such that in the drier year, even the conventional vineyard did not use many synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or the like.

For the LCA, the following impact categories were measured and compared between vineyards: 1) abiotic depletion; 2) acidification; 3) eutrophication; 4) global warming; 5) ozone layer depletion; 6) photochemical oxidant formation; and 7) toxicity.

Results

  • Diesel use was about 4 times higher in the conventional vineyard than in the biodynamic and the hybrid biodynamic-conventional vineyard.

Biodynamic Vineyard

  • Total environmental impacts were lower for 2011 compared with 2010, with improvements of 3% for the ecotoxicity category, and improvements of 32% for the acidification category.
  • Diesel use and production had the greatest environmental impact at the biodynamic vineyard, ranging from 49% in the eutrophication category to 78% in the acidification category.
  • The type of trellis system used had the second greatest environmental impact at the biodynamic vineyard, ranging from 13% in the acidification category to 35% in the photochemical oxidant formation category.
  • Pesticide production was 3rd place for environmental impacts at the biodynamic vineyard, ranging from 4% in the acidification category to 19% in the eutrophication category.
  • All other input factors (including machinery and water use) had environmental impacts ranging from 5% in the acidification category to 15% in the abiotic depletion category.
  • For ecotoxicity, the type of trellis system used had the greatest environmental impact (77%), with machinery & electricity coming in second (12%) and pesticide production coming in third (9%).

Hybrid Biodynamic-Conventional Vineyard

  • Similar to the biodynamic vineyard, total environmental impacts were lower for 2011 compared with 2010, with improvements of 40% for the abiotic depletion category and improvements of 51% for the acidification category.
  • Diesel use and production had the greatest environmental impact at the hybrid vineyard, ranging from 55% in the photochemical oxidant formation category to 84% in the ozone layer depletion category.
  • Pesticide production was 2nd place for environmental impacts at the hybrid vineyard, ranging from 20% in the eutrophication category to 24% in the acidification category, and finally to 26% in the photochemical oxidant formation category.
  • The type of trellis system used was 3rd place for environmental impacts at the hybrid vineyard, ranging from 10% in the global warming category to 13% in the abiotic depletion and photochemical oxidant formation categories.
  • Electricity, water use, and machine use together totaled no more than 8% of the total environmental impact of the hybrid vineyard.
  • Photo by Flickr user jetsandzepplins

    Photo by Flickr user jetsandzepplins

    For ecotoxicity, the type of trellis system used had the greatest environmental impact (64%), with pesticide production coming in second (20%), “other inputs” coming in third (12%) and finally diesel use coming in last (4%).

Conventional Vineyard

  • Similar to the biodynamic and hybrid vineyards, total environmental impacts were lower for 2011 compared with 2010, with improvements of 24% for the ozone layer depletion category and improvements of 52% for the ecotoxicity category.
  • Diesel use and production had the greatest environmental impact at the conventional vineyard, ranging from 24% in the eutrophication category to 80% in the abiotic depletion category (average impact for diesel = 59%).
  • The trellis system used contributed to several of the impact categories, including 10% for the global warming category, 11% for the abiotic depletion category, 30% for the acidification category, and finally 38% for the photochemical oxidant formation category.
  • In terms of the eutrophication category, fertilizer and the emissions associated with applying the fertilizer contributed the most at 64%.
  • The use of pesticides made up 40% of the ozone layer depletion category, 11% for the eutrophication category, and 9% for the photochemical oxidant formation category.
  • For ecotoxicity, the use of synthetic pesticides represented 99% of the total environmental impact.

Conclusions

Looking at each vineyard individually, one can see how the different input factors impact different aspects of environmental health.  When looked at together, one can see that the use of diesel fuel appeared to be the primary source of environmental impact for all three vineyard types and all impact categories except eutrophication and ecotoxicity.  In terms of the primary sources of environmental impact for eutrophication and ecotoxicity, that depended upon which vineyard you were examining, as they were not the same between the different vineyard management techniques.  For example, the primary source of the environmental impact category of ecotoxicity at the biodynamic and hybrid vineyards was the type of trellis system used, while the primary source of the same category at the conventional vineyard was the use of pesticides.

Overall, the results of this study indicated that using biodynamic viticulture techniques significantly reduced the overall environmental impact of the grape growing process, and that conventional techniques resulted in a significantly higher “environmental impact footprint”.  The authors also indicated that even though the results showed significantly greater environmental impact for the hybrid biodynamic-conventional vineyard compared with the certified biodynamic vineyard, these values were very similar to the Life Cycle Assessments of organic vineyards in the literature.  So, by implementing some biodynamic practices into a conventional agricultural setting, a vineyard could significantly decrease their environmental impact while maintaining some of increased yield known to conventional vineyards.  Incorporating some biodynamic techniques in the beginning of the transition process instead of completely shifting strategies all at the same time may help ease the conversion between conventional and biodynamic or organic, allowing the vineyard time to adjust to the new practices.

It was noted that 2011 appeared to have lower environmental impacts across the board than 2010, which was attributed to the more favorable weather during that growing season.  Less rain and more “ideal” growing days led to significant decreases in pesticide and fertilizer use across all vineyard sites, thereby demonstrating just how variable each growing season can be in terms of climate and strategies required for successful grape growth and development at the different vineyards.

Comparing across all three vineyards, results indicated that the biodynamic vineyard had the lowest environmental impact, followed by the hybrid biodynamic-conventional vineyard, with the conventional vineyard coming in third with the highest environmental impact.  The primary difference between the three in terms of environmental impact was the use of diesel fuel.  Since conventional vineyards rely more on mechanized procedures as well as the spraying of pesticides and fertilizers using farm equipment, this resulted in an 80% increase in diesel use between the conventional vineyard and the biodynamic vineyard.

One issue that the authors brought up was in regards to land use.  In order to achieve the same yield for a biodynamic vineyard as for a conventional vineyard, the amount of land required for grape growing is significantly higher for a biodynamic vineyard, since yields at harvest are generally lower for biodynamic vineyards than conventional vineyards.  In addition, biodynamic practices rely on significantly more human labor than conventional vineyards, with labor making up 12% of the total environmental impact at the biodynamic vineyard compared with 1.5% at the conventional vineyard in this study. However, does this increase land use and human labor negate all of the other significant environmental benefits

Photo by Flickr user Rising Damp

Photo by Flickr user Rising Damp

that come along with biodynamic farming?  Despite necessitating greater land use and human labor energy, biodynamic vineyard management techniques still had a significantly lower environmental impact than conventional vineyards.  Even conventional vineyards implementing some but not all biodynamic techniques had a lower environmental impact that conventional vineyards implementing all conventional practices.

When thinking about costs, the decreased yield from biodynamic viticulture is compensated by the fact that internal and external production costs of a biodynamic vineyard are significantly lower than conventional practices.  However, one aspect that is not compensated for is the increased cost of human labor.  As a result of this, biodynamic wines tend to be a little more expensive than conventional wines (25-30% higher by some calculations).  However, despite this increase in cost, current trends are showing a shift to lower yield practices like organic or biodynamic viticulture in order to spend less on oil, the prices for which only continue to grow.  Also, consumer studies have indicated that those people willing to purchase biodynamic wines are willing to spend a little more for these wines that they would for a conventionally made wine.  Over time, these factors may result in the equilibration of price between conventionally made and biodynamically made wines, hopefully inspiring more vineyards to get into the biodynamic club and help further reduce the overall environmental impact of the grape growing industry.

I’m curious to hear what you all think of this study.  Is there anything the study or my summary did not address that you felt was important to the story?  Please feel free to leave any comments, thoughts, or questions you might have!

Source: Villanueva-Rey, P., Vázquez-Rowe, I., Moreira, M.T., and Feijoo, G. 2013. Comparative life cycle assessment in the wine sector: biodynamic vs. conventional viticulture activities in NW Spain. Journal of Cleaner Technology, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.08.026

8 comments for “The Environmental Impact of Biodynamic Versus Conventional Viticulture Practices

  1. R Boushey
    September 30, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    As a grower I use far less diesel on conventionally or sustainably farmed grapes than organic and I’m guessing biodynamic, ( which I don’t do)
    I don’t understand your statement of “reduced sulfite” since organic and biodynamic approaches use twice to three times as much sulfur to control diseases as conventional. Maybe you are referring to the winemaking process not the vineyard.

    • Emma
      October 3, 2013 at 9:15 am

      The statement about “reduced sulfite” definitely refers to the wines rather than the production of the organic / BD fruit.

      As you say, the brutal use of sulfur in non-conventional vineyards more than compensates for this. The use of Bordeaux mix is pretty nasty too. A pity that the study doesn’t also look at impact of fungicides on arthropods!

    • Becca
      October 3, 2013 at 10:00 am

      You are right–poor choice of wording on my part. The reduced sulfites is in reference to the wine. My apologies for the confusion! Thanks for reading!

  2. Emma
    October 3, 2013 at 9:11 am

    Grape varieties / wine style & vineyard location are of relevance to a study like this. E.g. thin skin varieties need more protection than thick; traditional method fizz grapes will be hand picked rather than machine picked; botrytised wines will have very different fungicide regimes; New World sites are more likely to have irrigation lines with associated fertigation than Old World.

    I can see from the paper link at the bottom that the study took place in NW Spain, from the abstract that it was in Ribeiro, but without the actual paper, nowhere can I currently learn the varieties being studied. Please will you enlighten me?

    • Becca
      October 3, 2013 at 9:59 am

      Thanks for your insightful comments, Emma! I agree they missed an important part of the picture by not looking at impacts on arthropods or other organisms in the area.

      In terms of where the study took place, I’m afraid even within the entire paper, the only thing mentioned was “within a single appellation Ribeiro, NW Spain”. No where did I see what vineyards they used nor what types of grapes that were there. This, unfortunately, does complicate things as like you said, a lot that goes into this process is variety-dependent.

      The corresponding author on the paper is Ian Vázquez-Rowe, email ian.vazquez@tudor.lu if you are curious about learning more details about what they did.

      Cheers!

  3. Chris
    October 4, 2013 at 9:44 am

    Thank you for your ongoing blog, I enjoy being able to get updates on different research topics. This is one I’ve been watching for some time and am still uncertain of the real merits. Even the above study isn’t really clear on the trade offs, in my opinion.

    One thing I found interesting was in the conclusion where you write:

    “biodynamic wines tend to be a little more expensive than conventional wines (25-30% higher by some calculations)… Also, consumer studies have indicated that those people willing to purchase biodynamic wines are willing to spend a little more for these wines that they would for a conventionally made wine.”

    I’m not certain what constitutes “a little”, but 25-30% more seems a significant cost / price change. will someone pay $20 for an otherwise $15 bottle? I don’t know…

    • Becca
      October 7, 2013 at 9:57 am

      Hi Chris,

      Thank you so much for reading and for your comments!

      I guess “a little” is a really really vague term here, and I suppose is relative. I’d have to try and hunt down the consumer study that was referenced, but I tend to agree 25-30% does sound like an awful lot!

      • John Hancock
        August 1, 2014 at 1:21 am

        Just one thing: just as we expect the cost of oil to increase, so with the cost of human inputs with regards to labour cost rising

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